Fall in number of students taking up foreign languages prompts Brexit concerns

British Council warns more young people must learn languages for UK to remain globally competitive post-Brexit

Alison Kershaw
Saturday 05 August 2017 00:22 BST
The numbers of applications for degree courses linked to European languages have fallen by almost a quarter in the past five years
The numbers of applications for degree courses linked to European languages have fallen by almost a quarter in the past five years (iStockphoto)

There are fresh concerns that not enough young people are learning foreign languages, as figures show a slump in applications to study the subject area at university.

The numbers of applications for degree courses linked to European languages have fallen by almost a quarter in the past five years, while the numbers for other language courses have dropped by almost a fifth, according to an analysis by the Press Association.

At the same time, there has been a decline in the numbers studying languages traditionally offered by schools, such as French and German, to GCSE and A-level.

The analysis does indicate that Spanish has grown in popularity in recent times along with other courses, such as Arabic and Chinese.

The British Council, which specialises in international cultural relations, warned that if the UK is to remain globally competitive in the wake of Brexit it needs more young people to be learning languages.

The Press Association's analysis of Ucas figures shows that as of 30 June this year, there had been 15,140 applications from UK applicants to study European languages courses at university, down from 19,620 at the same point in 2012 – a drop of 22.8 per cent.

In addition, the number of UK applications to study degree courses related to non-European languages fell by 17.5 per cent over the same five-year period, from 5,720 in 2012 to 4,720 this year.

Further analysis of A-level data published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) shows the numbers of entries for French and German A-level dropped by more than a quarter between 2011 and 2016 (French down 26.7 per cent and German down 25.6 per cent).

There has been an 11.2 per cent rise in the numbers taking Spanish over this period, while entries for other modern languages rose 2.9 per cent.

Available figures shows increases in languages such as Arabic and Italian at A-level in the last three years.

At GCSE, the analysis again shows falls in French and German entries, and rises for Spanish and other modern languages, over the last five years, with breakdowns from 2013 onwards showing languages such as Chinese and Arabic growing in popularity.

Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the British Council, said: “As the UK comes to reposition itself on the world stage, language skills matter now more than ever. And with the country already facing a languages shortfall, we must do everything we can to encourage more people to acquire these vital skills.

“The reality is that speaking another language not only boosts job prospects but also enables you to connect with another culture.

“If the UK is to remain internationally competitive – particularly as we prepare to leave the EU – we need far more young people, not fewer, to be learning languages in schools and beyond. It's not enough to rely on English alone.”

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She said it was particularly worrying that French and German numbers continue to decline, despite being valued by employers.

“The main silver lining is that Spanish – the language seen as most important for the UK's future prosperity – continues to buck the general downturn,” Ms Gough said.

“There are also welcome increases in less traditional languages such as Mandarin Chinese – the most widely spoken language in the world.

“While it is positive that these languages are becoming more accessible to schools – and more popular amongst pupils – these modest gains sadly cannot compensate for the decline in language learning overall.”

Pippa Morgan, CBI head of education and skills, said: “Language skills are often a valuable asset to businesses operating in a global marketplace and for those young people equipped with modern languages, it can open up real opportunities.

“Improving careers advice and growing business-engagement with schools can help students see what they learn in the context of a future career – and could help reverse this trend.”

The figures come just weeks before teenagers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland receive their A-level and GCSE results.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Having the opportunity to study a language is an important part of the core academic education that will help young people gain the knowledge and understanding they need to compete in an increasingly global workplace.

“As part of our work to address the historic decline in study of modern foreign languages, we have made it a compulsory part of the primary curriculum and introduced the English Baccalaureate, which includes the study of a [foreign language] GCSE. We hope to see 75 per cent of pupils studying it by 2022.”


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