At this rate of attrition, no-one will be learning French and German in 10 years

August 15th, 2013 by

Today’s A level results should make the government think very hard about what is happening to languages in schools. French and German have fallen by 10% and 11% respectively, following on from 5% and 7% declines last year. This is a massive rate of attrition and the impact in schools – on the viability of groups, on teacher recruitment, on expertise in teaching languages to a high level – must be immense. I don’t even want to think about the impact on university departments.

The government has hailed the increase in ‘facilitating subjects’ as a policy triumph, but the truth is that STEM subject are growing in popularity at the expense of languages. This can’t be right: linguists are needed in the global economy alongside scientists, and technical knowledge falls flat if you can’t communicate it.

There are some winners in this year’s figures. Spanish is still increasing in numbers, and some of the smaller entry languages – Russian, Arabic, Turkish, Farsi (Persian) and Portuguese – are looking healthy. But these increases are not enough to compensate for the declines in French and German (the languages employers most need) and even Chinese has declined this year. Overall, modern language subjects have declined by 5% relative to 2012 and now represent only 3.8% of all A level entries. That means that only one pupil out of every class of 26 is now learning a language beyond a basic level. No wonder 64% of employers say they are dissatisfied with school leavers’ language skills – more than for any other skill area.

Next week, there will be better news for languages. GCSE results will show the impact of the EBacc for the first time and we may see as much as a 10% increase in entries for language subjects. But I am very sceptical about whether this increase will be carried over to A level. Pupils funnelled into languages GCSEs to tick performance measure boxes don’t suddenly become enthusiastic linguists, and there is too big a gulf between GCSE and A level for the transition to be made easily.

The new national curriculum and reformed subject content for GCSE offer real hope for bridging that gap in future, but only if schools take on board the need to make provision for improved standards in languages from the bottom up. That means secondary schools putting in place better arrangements for languages from Year 7 – improving timetabling, enriching the languages curriculum, providing opportunities for pupils to use the language outside the classroom, and proper CPD for teachers. Primary schools will need to do their bit too, but that’s another story.

Robert Duncan says:

Having taken Scottish Highers in French and German (and wonderful Latin), and done a year of French and German at university, I share this disappointment, though the broadening out of the linguistic range looks encouraging.

One language I would like to see added into the mix is British Sign Language, which might not only attract quite a lot of young people who don’t take so readily to spoken and written languages, but would equip them to converse with Deaf BSL users whom they probably pass every day in the street – ‘pass’ being the operative word, as they are unable to stop and communicate with them, compounding the terrible exclusion of Deaf people from all aspects of our society. To quote Professor Graham Turner, Chair of Translation & Interpreting Studies at Heriot-Watt University, “I, for one, am FIRMLY convinced that many thousands of hearing children would JUMP at the chance of studying BSL at school; in doing so, they would (a) blow their minds!, (b) improve their overall cognitive abilities, (c) get a whole new perspective on disability and difference, and (d) generally make the UK a more broad-minded and inclusive place.

Signworld will be at The Language Show at Olympia in October and would be happy to discuss with any interested parties.

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