Language learning in the UK plummets as students stay at home

The British failure to learn a foreign language has seen a dramatic drop in the number of university students going abroad to study, an influential House of Lords committee has warned.

The number of undergraduates from the UK spending part of their degree studying in another European country has plummeted from 12,000 in 1994 to 7,538 in 2003.

This "deeply disturbing" drop threatens to leave Britain unable to "protect our interests" abroad and to compete economically in Europe, the Lords' European Union Committee warned yesterday.

The UK is "already falling badly behind in language learning capability", concluded the committee's report into the EU's plans to expand the scheme.

But it added that Britain was set to miss out when the EU launches a €13.6bn programme to expand exchange programmes - particularly for school pupils.

The report also called for the Government to review plans to allow students to drop language learning at 14 arguing that it would add to the "deep-seated British linguistic deficiency".

"We are deeply disturbed ... about the declining capacity for language-learning in this country", the report concluded. "The programmes cannot do much to help redress the balance unless urgent and effective action is taken nationally to invest more at all levels."

The "linguistic deficiency" was also a sign of a wider cultural problem caused by the failure of the British public to appreciate the unique value of studying abroad.

The European Commission spends €3.25bn on educational exchanges for all age groups, but plans a massive expansion to €13.6bn from 2007.

The best known of these is the Erasmus programme for university students. This involves more than 1.2 million students although the number of British participants has plummeted.

The British reluctance to go abroad could be seen in Erasmus applications. Although the scheme is intended for students of all subjects - not just languages - in Britain only foreign language specialists took part. By contrast, in other European countries students of a wide range of subjects were keen to take part.

Numbers from France, Spain and Germany are rising and now stand at more than 20,000. However fewer are coming to Britain as cash strapped UK universities prefer students from outside the EU who pay higher fees, the report said.

The committee warned that the UK would be unable to get the maximum value out of the EU programmes unless urgent action was taken to improve students' language skills.

"We believe the problem will worsen as the new programme targets increasing proportions of the younger population. The United Kingdom will not be able to get anything like full value from the ... programme. While more funding for preparatory language training is a possible short-term solution, it will not address the more strategic deep-seated British linguistic deficiency which requires long-term commitment and investment to sustain improvement."

The decline of language learning has been highlighted by educationalists unhappy when the Government ended the compulsory study of languages for 14 to 16-year-olds in September.

The Government's own qualifications body has since warned that the study of foreign language A-levels was in "chronic decline".

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