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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windo...

Guru Careers: Product Training Specialist / Software Trainer

£25 - 32,500K (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Produ...

Recruitment Genius: Unqualified NVQ Assessors - Health, Social Care & Management

£16000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions