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Dramatic decline in foreign languages studied at university

Evidence of the alarming fall in the take-up of languages by students at universities has emerged in research.

Figures show that German, especially, has plummeted, with only 610 students accepted on degree courses last year, compared with 2,288 a decade ago. French is the second biggest casualty, with numbers dropping by a third from 5,655 to 3,700 in 10 years.

Overall, the figures show the number of students accepted on to language courses has slumped by almost a quarter during the past decade.

The researchers, from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London and the University of Stirling, say there was a "steep decline" in the first half of this decade – with overall numbers tumbling by 20 per cent. Since then, French and German have continued to fall – although the decline has been partially offset by a rise in those studying newly-available languages such as Mandarin and Arabic.

The researchers warn that graduates without language skills will find it much harder to find jobs in the modern economy. "Employers ranging from law firms to multinational banks to major aid and development organisations confirmed that applicants with languages were, at the very least, viewed more favourably than those without," they said.

"Some stated categorically that they would not employ people who spoke only English. For some companies, the specific languages were immaterial: they saw students with languages as much more flexible and adaptable, more likely to appreciate the need for intercultural communication skills and more able to build relationships with counterparts or clients in other countries."

They argue that universities should start providing degree courses in some of the community languages most in use in Britain.

"For the four most widely spoken community languages in England – Urdu, Cantonese, Punjabi and Bengali – there are no degree courses available, despite the fact that these languages have been well-established in the UK since at least the 1960s, and that substantial numbers of secondary school children have studied them to A-level," their report added.

The SOAS has since announced that it is to begin a degree course in Bengali from next month.

About 6,000 youngsters now take Urdu at GCSE, with 600 continuing to A-level, while more than 2,000 study Mandarin at A-level.

The continuing decline has led to ministers declaring modern foreign languages a "strategic and vulnerable" subject, offering help for universities threatening to ditch language courses.

The report warns that English might lose its position as the most widely-spoken business language, given the growth in the Chinese economy.

"The dominance of English around the world may be threatened," it added. "Furthermore, other foreign languages, notably Arabic, Hindi/Urdu and Spanish, closely followed by Russian and Portuguese, are strong competitors.

"In a world where 'everyone' (in reality, probably about 25 per cent of the world's population) speaks English as a first or additional language, competence in these other languages is likely to constitute a competitive 'edge'."

In promoting community languages, it also argues that those youngsters who are already fluent in a second language will find it easier to pick up a third if their employment sends them to a foreign country.

The take-up of languages in schools has slumped since the Government made them voluntary subjects for children from the age of 14. The number taking French at GCSE, for instance, has halved since the turn of the century.

However, there was some cause for comfort in last week's A-level results, with the take-up of French rising by 2.8 per cent to its highest level for six years, and Spanish rising by 1.5 per cent.

Education experts have also predicted that the decline in languages at GCSE level might bottom out when this year's results are published on Thursday.

In numbers

2,288 - number of students opting to study German at university in 1998

610 - number opting to study German in 2008