What is going on here? No one really knows, but there is a suspicion that students may be emulating British adults and becoming more Euro- sceptic, if not more Europhobic. "It may have something to do with Germany winning the European Cup," says Professor Mark Bannister of Oxford Brookes University, who is chairman of the standing conference of heads of modern languages. "That sounds unlikely, but it may be as silly as that."
Other professors report anecdotal evidence from teachers of pupils who say that learning a language is somehow unpatriotic. Britain has never exactly been the foreign language learning capital of the world, due at least in part to the pre-eminence of English as a world language, but this latest fall-off is more pronounced in some languages than others. One of the clearest trends of the Nineties is the increasing replacement of German by Spanish as the preferred second language after French. The mushrooming popularity of Spanish is an international phenomenon, with America leading the way because of its increasing Hispanic population. It is generally agreed to be easier to learn than German, partly because it is a Romance language and most British students have studied French, another Romance language, at some point. It is also easier to get further in Spanish without running into difficulties, says Professor Mike Kelly of Southampton University, who is chairman of the University Council for Modern Languages.
By contrast with French and Spanish, German is an inflected language. If you study German you have to learn cases, and the word order is unfamiliar.
"German doesn't have a good press," comments Jill Forbes, who is Ashley Watkins Professor of French at Bristol University. "I personally deplore the development, because German is an increasingly important language in Europe."
Germany has the strongest economy in Europe, she points out. It is our main export partner. And German is the most widely spoken first language on the Continent.
So seriously do some academics regard what is happening to German that they are calling on the Government to take action to change the climate. "All this Europhobia doesn't help," says Professor Bannister, of Oxford Brookes. "The idea that Europe is hostile to Great Britain is bound to have a psychological effect."
Behind the trends in admissions lie changes in the school curriculum and increasing competition between schools and between students. Within the new national curriculum, students do not have as much space to study two languages. Many of the students who used to opt for languages at university had studied two languages at A-level. In addition, schools are under pressure because of league tables, which means that they are less likely to encourage experimentation.
The pressure on university places also affects students' choices. Young people keen to get into good universities choose subjects in which they think they will be successful. Moreover, modern languages are bedevilled by sexism. Boys, particularly those from state schools, choose not to take languages out of a mysterious perception that they are feminine subjects. That leads to a big gender imbalance, with around four female students to every male taking a subject such as French.
And somehow, the fact that German is seen as a masculine rather than a feminine language does not seem to have much effect. All those guttural noises and rules of grammar, visions of Chancellor Kohl and German football, do not seem to have swung the chaps over to German in sufficient numbers. By comparison, Spanish - with its image of flamenco dancers and castanets - is cutting a swathe around the world.
But perhaps the most ominous feature of the language education scene is the critical shortage of language teachers in schools and the dearth of young people wanting to train as teachers of French, German or Spanish. That means schools simply do not have enough specialists in those subjects to teach future generations. The shortfall is thought to have a serious knock-on effect when it comes to university admissions.
Today's falling-off in enthusiasm for language degrees may simply represent a return by the British to their lukewarm feelings for "abroad" rather than a real watershed. It may be that the enthusiasm engendered in the Eighties for Europe, at a time when Britain was gearing up for the single European market in 1992, was an aberration.
In any case, 1992 served as a stimulus for the languages-for-all or institution- wide language programmes, as they are known in the academic lexicon, whereby students learn to speak and use a language in conjunction with their main degree course, which may be business studies or law. Such courses are now widespread in British academe, particularly in the new universities, and are a cause for some celebration in modern languages departments. They have been given a shove by the EU's Erasmus programme, which enables students to spend up to a year of their studies abroad - and for that time to count towards their degree.
Students are much more interested nowadays in mixing languages with another subject as part of their degree course in the hope that the language will be a useful extra in a tough job market. Some of these non-specialist students study a language with a view to completing a work or study placement abroad, and achieve high levels of fluency, but the majority study below A-level or beginners' level, according to Derrik Ferney, head of languages at Anglia Polytechnic University.
Some of the institution-wide language programmes are very large indeed, containing more than 2,000 students a year, which enables them to offer a far greater variety of languages than most schools. Interest in Japanese, for example, has been growing fast. All of this means that there are more non-specialist than specialist students of modern languages in English higher education institutions. No one knows exactly how many there are at present, and this is one reason why Anglia Polytechnic University and others are applying to the Higher Education Funding Council for a grant to research the subject.
So, all is not gloom in the field of modern languages. Professor Kelly hopes that this year's figures for university admissions will show an increase in applications for language degrees. In the longer term, he is chairing a committee called the Languages Strategy Working Group - containing representatives from language organisations and public bodies - which has prepared a draft report on the state of languages. It is calling for a national commission on languages.
At present, no one authority, no single body, ministry or individual is responsible for languages. No one in the Department for Education and Employment is co-ordinating information on the subject.
"Our language competence fails to match that of our global competitors," says the group's draft report. "Too many export companies still fail to understand and act on research findings relating a company's success to the language competence of all its staff, not simply those in export sales. Meanwhile, jobs are being lost to other European nationals who offer the additional benefit of a fluent command of more than one language".Reuse content