This year’s A level figures for languages – a cause for celebration?

August 19th, 2021 by

There were nearly 31,000 entries for A levels in so-called modern languages this year (2021), more than any year since 2017, and a 24% increase on 2020. A cause for celebration, surely?

Not necessarily, if we look more closely at the figures.

‘Other Modern Languages’

Last year I reported the ‘tragedy’ of the impact of the cancellation of exams on entries for community languages – i.e., those not generally studied in mainstream schools but in after-school or Saturday classes. The ‘centre-assessed’ grading system introduced instead of the normal exam regime meant that many of these students were effectively excluded, resulting in a shocking 41% drop in entries for these languages. This situation was examined further in the report Silenced Voices by the Global Futures think tank which called for the Government to put in place measures to ensure that these learners could receive grades this summer.

When the Government announced in January that exams would once again be cancelled in 2021, the National Resource Centre for Supplementary Education took action to create a Community Languages Examination Centre with a range of partners to enable assessments to take place. This was supported by the Government’s private candidate support grants of £200 per entry, and the deadlines for candidate entries were extended.

This year entries for the ‘Other Modern Languages’ (i.e., all those except French, Spanish, and German) have risen by 7%, with some languages, (Russian, Arabic, Urdu, Persian, and Modern Greek) seeing some substantial rises. However, compared to pre-pandemic entry levels, these figures are still low. Turkish, Portuguese, Japanese, and Modern Hebrew have each fielded less than half as many candidates as they did in 2019 and, taken together, the Other Languages have seen a drop of 37% in entries compared to 2019, pre-pandemic. Only Russian is approaching the number of candidates it saw in 2019.

(Numbers for Bengali and Gujarati have been supressed because they are so low)

Spanish, French, and German

In contrast, the centre-assessment regime has had little impact on trends for the main languages taught in the school system.

Spanish continues its upward rise with a 5% increase in numbers compared to last year, taking these to the highest level yet. It is now well established as the first foreign language at A level.

Numbers for French were slightly up on last year, when it declined by 1%, taking it back to its pre-lockdown level. The big story for French is the longer term decline it has seen – in the last 10 years it has lost over a third of candidates.

The situation for German is even more dire. It has lost almost half its candidates over the period 2011-2021 and numbers went down by a further 5% this year.

So no, not much to celebrate this year.

Lockdown and Brexit squeeze language GCSEs, but Chinese and Spanish survive and thrive

August 17th, 2021 by

Last year I reported on the dire impact of the use of Teacher-Assessed Grades on GCSE entries for languages not generally taught in mainstream schools – languages such as Turkish, Arabic, and Polish which tend to be taught in after-school community language classes rather than as curriculum subjects. Entries for these languages – taking all 15 of them together – dropped by 28% between 2019 and 2020 with large numbers of learners of these languages effectively being excluded from the Teacher-Assessed grading system.

Another year, another lockdown. A look at this year’s figures shows an encouraging 7% increase in entries for languages other than the big three (French, Spanish, and German) but not enough to make up for the 28% decline of the previous year.

The impact of Brexit also appears to be evident. Comparing the 2021 entry figures to 2019, Italian, Polish, and Portuguese have all declined significantly (by 32%, 50% and 35% respectively). I would suggest this is the result of EU citizens leaving Britain rather than anything to do with the lockdown and teacher-assessed grades.

The only languages to have attracted more candidates this year compared to 2019 are Spanish, Chinese, and Modern Hebrew. Spanish has been on an upward trajectory for many years which neither the lockdown nor Brexit have damaged. Entries for Modern Hebrew are relatively low and a 58% rise, not large in numeric terms, does not exceed the normal range of fluctuation for this language over the last 10 years. We should not read too much into this.  

Entries for Chinese rose by 26% between 2020 and 2021, probably as a result of the first cohort of GCSE entries from the Government’s Mandarin Excellence Programme which started in 2016. This provides pleasing confirmation of the impact of concerted effort and a relatively small investment of government funding. It is to be hoped that the Government will now consider similar schemes for other languages.

The ten-year picture

Taking a step back to look at the evolving situation for different languages over the period 2011 to 2021, the great beneficiaries have been:

  • Spanish – up 74%
  • Chinese – up 73%
  • Arabic – up 46%

The greatest losers have been:

  • Bengali – down 64% and Gujarati – down 56% (both of these from a low base)
  • Japanese – down 40%
  • And German, down 57%

Coronavirus and languages GCSEs, 2020

October 16th, 2020 by

The chaos over this year’s exam results meant that the JCQ only belatedly published GCSE entry figures with which we can make a valid comparison with previous years. As with A levels, entry figures for the languages most often studied outside mainstream schools have dropped substantially, most probably because of difficulties submitting teacher-assessed grades.

Here is a review of 2020 entries in comparison with 2019:

Entries for all subjects rose by 3%, with entries for French, German, and Spanish combined also rising by 3% – confirmation of the levelling out of previous declines we have seen over the past 3 years or so. Within this group of languages – those most commonly taught in schools – we also see a continuation of the trend towards increasing numbers taking Spanish (+7% this year on 2019).  Entries for French increased by 1% and German declined by 1%, both welcome signs given declines of 22% and 29% respectively in these languages over the preceding five years.

Entries for other languages have fared much worse in 2020. As a group, the ‘lesser-taught’ languages have declined by 28% compared to 2019, after remaining fairly stable over the previous five years. That previous stability among the group as a whole masked substantial variations between different languages, with Chinese, Arabic, and Polish seeing heathy increases, while Panjabi, Urdu and Japanese saw declines. Between 2019 and 2020, only one language saw increased entries – Modern Hebrew. With that exception, there were fewer entries for all the lesser taught languages with declines ranging from -48% for Polish to -10% for Chinese.

Full figures here:

The hidden tragedy of this year’s A level figures

August 17th, 2020 by

On the face of it, this year’s A level results for languages show little change from the trends we have been seeing for years – entries for Spanish are up by 1%, those for French down 1%, and those for German down by about 6%. The continuing decline of German is, of course, extremely troubling – but nothing new.

What is a tragedy for language learning in the UK is the decline in entries for the so-called ‘Other Languages’. For years, we’ve consoled ourselves over the decline in French and German by the observation that entries for these other languages have been very healthy. Some, like Arabic, Polish, and Portuguese, have been increasing steadily year on year. In 2019, Other Languages represented around 30% of total language entries for A level, even though many are not taught in mainstream schools.

This year the Other Languages are down by 41%. The majority have seen entry figures decline by more than 50%.

% decline in A level entries, 2019-2020
Chinese -29%
Russian -18%
Polish -54%
Italian -19%
Arabic -53%
Turkish -54%
Portuguese -63%
Urdu -41%
Japanese -56%
Persian -55%
Panjabi -48%
Modern Greek -69%
Modern Hebrew -36%
Bengali -57%
Gujarati -96%
all other modern languages -41%

We can identify two reasons for this.

  1. New A level specifications

The new A level specifications for the majority of these languages were introduced in 2018, so 2020 is the first year in which they have been examined.

Evidence from last year suggests that the new arrangements have been a contributing factor in making these languages less accessible for pupils who study them outside of a mainstream school:

The new specifications for the languages starred in the list below (Chinese, Russian and Italian) were introduced a year earlier and it is notable that these languages saw declines between 2018 and 2019, when these exams were first taken, despite almost all the other languages seeing increases:

% change in entries, 2018-2019
Chinese* -32%
Russian* -35%
Polish 10%
Italian* -12%
Arabic 13%
Turkish 21%
Portuguese 13%
Urdu 0%
Japanese -13%
Persian -9%
Panjabi 5%
Modern Greek 24%
Dutch -82%
Modern Hebrew 27%
Bengali 12%
Gujarati -22%
all other modern languages -14%

*new specifications introduced 2019

  • Exceptional arrangements as a result of Covid-19

It is to be noted that entries for all the Other Languages – not just those for which new specifications have been introduced – have seen a decline in 2020. This leads us to the second reason, which must surely be the system of centre assessed grading introduced to replace exams cancelled because of Covid-19.

As the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages pointed out in its consultation response to Ofqual in April, the majority of students taking an examination in their ‘community’ language are learning in contexts outside their school – in Saturday classes, at home, or in the community. Very few supplementary schools are registered as examination centres. This means that these pupils have effectively been excluded from the examination system this year.  In 2019, 3,368 more pupils took an A level in one of these languages than in 2020. What impact will this have on students’ chances of a university place? Or on their ability in future to provide evidence of the language skills they possess?

Double whammy

The combined effects of the two factors – the new specifications combined with this year’s centre assessment grading system, have resulted in the number of entries for Other Languages declining by 49% – see chart below. Nearly 5,000 pupils have been denied the opportunity to obtain a qualification that could have been critical to their future careers.

This is a shocking, tragic loss for the pupils and their families and for our country.

Language learning and boys – how some schools beat the odds

January 28th, 2020 by

Girls are more likely to learn a language at GCSE, but some schools are bucking this trend. Read this blog on research we carried out for the British Council, published in their Voices magazine

GCSE languages entries 2019

August 22nd, 2019 by

Call me curmudgeonly but I don’t reckon a 2.3% rise in GCSE language entries equates to a revival. Especially when GCSE entries across all subjects have gone up 1.4%. And numbers for languages are lower now than when the Government introduced the EBacc which was intended to turn things around. Let’s have a closer look at the figures released today:

We are looking at a very welcome upturn for both French (3%) and Spanish (8%), but German continues its downward trend with a 4% drop.

There is a mixed picture for other languages, which I am showing on two separate charts because of the difference in scale. Entries for Chinese, which has been enjoying some recent growth, declined by 27% between 2018 and 2019, while the number of candidates for Arabic also dropped – by 4%. However, Polish (+31%) Italian (+12%), Russian (+6%), Portuguese (+5%) and Urdu (+4%) all show increases.

On a smaller scale again, all the other languages except Turkish showed declines. There were no entries for Dutch, which has been withdrawn.

Looking at all language entries together, it is easy to see how take-up declined by nearly half after the Government announced in 2002 that it would be withdrawing compulsory status for the subject – this policy came into effect in 2004. The E-Bacc, announced in 2010/11, produced a temporary upturn of about 18% but numbers then declined again. We still have a long way to go before numbers return even to the level achieved by the ‘EBacc bounce’.

NB these figures are for the UK as a whole, so include entries from Northern Ireland and Wales where different policies and circumstances prevail. I will be discussing these elsewhere.

EBacc effect wearing off on GCSE languages

August 20th, 2015 by

Figures for GCSE entries published today show a 6% fall in the number of pupGCSE figsils taking languages GCSEs, providing further evidence that the positive effect of the EBacc performance measure is tailing off. Numbers taking French, German and Spanish rose in 2013 in response to the EBacc measure announced in 2011, but have since started to fall. Numbers taking German have dropped by 10% this year and even Spanish, a language which has been performing relatively well, has seen a 2% decline in entries this year. Numbers for French fell by 6% compared to 2014.

Entries for other languages show a mixed picture. The most popular of these – Italian, Urdu, Polish, Chinese, Arabic and Russian (see graphic 1/2), have all grown since 2011, but Russian has fallen back this year after four years of steady growth. Chinese, Polish and Arabic have all see large percentage increases since 2011, whilst Italian has declined over the last two years.
GCSE small entry 1In the middle tier in terms of number of entries (graphic 2/2), Portuguese and Turkish have grown over the 5 year period, whereas Bengali, Japanese and Panjabi have all declined, confirmed a longer term trend.


GCSE small entry 2








Figures for the very small entry languages, Gujarati, Persian, Dutch, Modern Greek and Modern Hebrew, are given in the chart below.

  2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Gujarati 565 586 542 625 563
Persian 394 464 435 535 445
Dutch 431 434 421 406 462
Modern Greek 418 386 510 516 528
Modern Hebrew 445 458 443 500 558



Latest figures for languages at A level

August 13th, 2015 by

A level entry figures for 2015 released by JCQ show a substantial rise in the numbers of students taking Spanish at A level: the subject saw a 14.4% increase, which was the second highest across all subjects after computing. However conversely, German showed the fourth largest decrease in entries, down 4.25%.

AL entries Aug 15As the chart shows, the preference for Spanish over German has been evident for some years. But there must be deep concern about what appears now to be a tipping point where severe financial pressures are making smaller A level groups unviable. This is something we reported on in this year’s Language Trends report.

There was only a slight decrease in numbers taking French A level this year; however over a 6 year period, French has seen a 26% drop in entries. The ‘Other languages’ shown on the graph exclude Welsh and Irish but include all other (modern) language A levels, some of which are under threat of being withdrawn. 

AL entries Aug 15b


The entry figures for Chinese are highly anomalous and are not shown here. Chinese has largest number of A level entries of any language after French, German and Spanish (3,099 in 2015) and has grown by about a third since 2010.However, we discussed in our report on Chinese, entries come predominantly from the independent sector and are far in excess of the number of entries for GCSE or AS, suggesting that many students are native speakers from abroad.

There is a wealth of data contained in JCQ’s figures which merit further analysis by gender, and by UK region. In the light of concerns about the grading of language exams and the relative lack of As and A*s, teachers will be interested to discover whether the promised improvements to marking have had any impact.

AL entries Aug 15c


Research into the learning of Chinese in UK schools

May 11th, 2014 by

Update August 2015: read the report here

Alcantara Communications has been commissioned by the British Council and the Confucius Institute Headquarters (Hanban) to carry out research into the learning and teaching of Chinese in the UK. The research forms part of a joint British Council/Hanban initiative to develop Chinese language capacity in the UK as a means of supporting deeper and broader cultural, educational and economic links between the UK and China. It is expected that the research will play a pivotal role in the success of this initiative and in mapping out the road to increasing the number of Chinese learners in the UK. Key objectives of the research include:

  1. to understand the nature of the UK’s need for Chinese language skills and the benefits Chinese can bring to individuals, organisations, businesses and the country at large
  2. to assess how many Chinese speakers the UK will need to effectively engage with China in the future and establish the current capacity and output of Chinese speakers in the UK
  3. to analyse the current policy environment and provisions for Chinese language learning in the UK and identify the specific factors that help/hinder the take-up of Chinese language
  4. to assess the full range of actual and potential resources at the UK’s disposal
  5. to identify strengths, gaps and challenges in strategy, practice and provision and make recommendations for specific interventions that will enable the UK to double the number of Chinese learners and develop a pool of Chinese speakers by 2020.

In partnership with SCILT, which acts as the Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools, Alcantara Communications won the tender to carry out the educational component of the research project. The other component, which focusses on the economic value and benefits of Chinese, is being carried out by Oxford Economics, an organisation specialising global forecasting and quantitative analysis. The two organisations are working closely together under the leadership of the British Council and Hanban and expect to complete the research by the end of September.

Practical help in times of crisis for languages at A level

March 21st, 2014 by

Languages in sixth forms are in dire straits, but the British Academy Schools Language Awards offer funding for schools who want to buck the trend.

In researching the background for the Language Trends survey, out next week, I had a closer look at last year’s A level figures for languages, about which I have written before. It is scary stuff. Since the mid 1990s, English entries for French and German have seen very serious declines in numbers – 57% and 59% respectively. Last summer alone French dropped by 9% and German by 10%. At the same time, entries for Spanish and for other languages have increased, but not by enough to compensate for the falls in French and German, meaning that overall, entries for A level languages have declined by 31% since 1996. The growth in ‘other languages’, a category which includes Arabic, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Turkish and Urdu, is a welcome sign that our language base is diversifying. But many – perhaps the majority – of these entries do not reflect languages actually taught in schools but rather the efforts of minority communities in supporting the languages of their heritages outside the mainstream and, in the case of independent schools, incoming pupils from abroad taking exams in languages they already speak. The case of Chinese is particularly striking in this respect, with a whopping 71% of A level entries coming from independent schools – and more entries in the subject for A level than for GCSE.

All this means that monolingual UK born and educated English native speakers who acquire A level competence in another language are becoming a real rarity. This is a terrible indictment of our education system and a betrayal of our national obligation to prepare the next generation for the challenges they will face in an increasingly interconnected and competitive world.

There is work that needs to be done at policy level and in reforming the exam system to improve the situation. But schools can also play a part in enthusing and motivating young people and providing them with richer opportunities to get the languages bug. I know from my own experience that it was not the classroom teaching but the real contacts with Spanish and French culture that made me see languages as part of my future.

The British Academy is offering a total of 14 Awards worth £4,000 each throughout the UK for projects that encourage larger numbers of students to take languages to advanced and degree level.

The Awards are open to all UK secondary schools, supplementary schools and FE colleges – and organisations supporting them.

Projects must:

  • Show imagination and creativity in improving take up and enthusiasm for language learning
  • Have clear objectives and a strong chance of success
  • Show how the benefits will carry on even after the funding has run out

An additional £2,000 will be given to two national winners.

Here is practical help for confronting the crisis of language learning at A level. Further details on how to apply are at:


Which languages?

November 20th, 2013 by

When the British Council announced they wanted to commission a piece of research on which languages the UK needs most and why, I was delighted. But I could also see the pitfalls. One the one hand, I could see that a balanced and considered analysis would help to stimulate and inform a debate which is all too often dominated by personal opinion and value judgements. On the other hand, producing a list of just 10 languages seemed destined to upset someone. I had no wish to be the cause of a diplomatic incident. And asking which languages the UK needs is not the same as saying which languages schools should teach or which languages people should learn. These questions require consideration of a wider range of factors and I respect that. So when I joined forces with my colleague Kate Board to carry out the work we were clear that the report needed to be based on a systematic and dispassionate review of the evidence. It needed to take into account a balanced range of factors, both economic and cultural. Not only which languages might be needed for future business success, or the languages of countries where cultural links are already strong but, given the power of language learning to build trust, where there was the greatest need to strengthen relationships and mend fences.We were also seeking balance in terms of the sources of evidence we used. We wanted not only to take into account the views of government and business, but also the wants and needs of the British public. We achieved this by looking at the most popular tourist destinations for Britons, and the availability of beginners language courses for adults, which are so responsive to popular demand.

The list of languages we’ve come up with is not definitive, but we hope it will stimulate debate and above all, positive action. We hope that it will encourage creative thinking not only on how to develop the teaching of a more diverse range of languages, but also to strengthen and enrich those which are already widely taught. I am delighted that the main message emerging from media coverage is that it is language learning in general which is important, and the entrée into other cultures which it provides is a great prize which can enhance the future in so many different ways.

To download the full report, go to


Why I’m calling for 1000 words for all

September 14th, 2013 by

I’ve been working with Speak to the Future to develop their new 1000 words campaign. The message is that everyone can and should acquire at least 1000 words in another language. The idea is that the concept of 1000 words provides a way of unifying messages and getting through to a wider public. Where ‘learning to speak another language’ sounds daunting, 1000 words is something everyone can aspire to. Whilst ‘A2 on the Common European Framework’ means something specific to the specialists, it’s hardly a hook for a marketing campaign. But the idea of 1000 words is also flexible – it can be interpreted in different ways to suit different circumstances, and it lends itself to creativity.

The key message is that languages are for everyone. There is a huge need to democratise language learning, to change attitudes and practices which all too often see it as something for the privileged and academic, but not so relevant for the average person. Yet when I interviewed businesses for the British Academy’s State of the Nation report, it was clear that language skills were required and valued at all levels in the workforce. In fact, in the case of B&Q, which works closely with their French sister company Castorama to pool buying power, Services and Training Manager Mark Giles told me that ‘while senior managers [in Castrorama] might speak good English, deeper in the organisation this is not the case’. They are therefore training staff in French to bridge the communication gap.

We need to draw in all the support we can get – from headteachers, businesses, cultural organisations and influential individuals – to put awareness of the value of languages on the same level that STEM subjects enjoy. A number of actions are now coming together to make this start to seem like a real possibility. It’s fantastic that the Guardian has now teamed up with the British Academy to promote the case for language learning. And I’m very encouraged that organisations such as the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce are engaging with the new Born Global research project to provide evidence for rethinking policies on language learning in the light of how languages are actually used in the workplace. The British Council too is putting its weight behind language learning in the UK with a range of activities coming up during its forthcoming International Education Week.

So, as Speak to the Future Campaign Director Bernardette Holmes memorably said at the launch of the Born Global project, it is not only a question of Obama’s ‘Yes, we can’ . We must go further and be clear also that ‘we must’ and ‘we will’.

So please join the 1000 words campaign – there is a sign up form on the Speak to the Future website at


Why I’m not jumping for joy at the increase in GCSE entries for languages

August 22nd, 2013 by

Figures released today show that after a decade of decline, the number of students taking GCSEs in French, German and Spanish has risen spectacularly by 17%.

The rise for Spanish is particularly dramatic – an amazing 26% increase in entries in just one year.

This is surely good news for languages – and of course for the students concerned – so why am I not jumping for joy?

We’re clearly seeing the impact of the EBacc – the policy announced at the end of 2010 to get more students into ‘traditional’ subjects such as languages – history and geography, also EBacc subjects, have also seen rises of 17% and 19% respectively. The 2011 Language Trends survey already showed how around 40% of schools reacted by making languages compulsory for some pupils or modifying option blocks to guide more pupils into continuing with a language. We’re seeing the results of those option choices now. But the impact has been on a very small number of pupils – the proportion of the cohort sitting a GCSE in a language has gone up just 3 percentage points, from 41% to 44%.

Now, 3 percentage points is maybe not too bad, if that level of increase can be maintained year on year. But will the EBacc keep delivering in future years? I don’t think so. Teachers responding to the latest Trends survey said that where their schools had made changes to enable more students to achieve the EBacc, they weren’t intending to make more changes to get ever greater numbers doing so. And, let’s remember, the EBacc has changed since it was first announced. It’s now just one performance measure among many, it won’t have the status intended when it was first launched and there is a real possibility that some schools will reverse the measures they so eagerly put into place two years ago.

So while the EBacc may have delivered some good news today for the Education Secretary, it’s not going to take us much further.

Another reason why I’m not jumping for joy is that last week’s A level entry figures for languages are still fresh in my mind. Some commentators today seem to be as consistent in their assessment of what’s going on in languages as Glenda Slagg – bemoaning things one minute and rejoicing the next. The A level figures were horrendous, yet it’s at that level – when learners start to become independent users of the language – that the benefits of language learning really start to be felt. The A level entry figures reflect very badly on the way languages GCSEs prepare students for higher level study. I would be very surprised if manipulating more students into taking GCSEs will spill over into increased take up for A level.

But the main reason I’m not ecstatic today is the other 56%. I’m sad and frustrated that there is no sign of any policy to enable the majority of teenagers to have an enjoyable and productive experience of language learning at school. This is something that the campaign for languages Speak to the Future will be taking up in the autumn, so watch this space!

Speak to the Future statement on GCSEs by Bernardette Holmes

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.

The climate for language learning and ‘scratchy labels’

March 21st, 2013 by

Headline press coverage of the 2012 Language Trends report, of which I am the main author, has focussed on ‘Anti-European attitudes’ as creating an unhelpful climate for language learning. This is a valid issue to debate – which I will discuss below – but it was certainly not a finding of the survey, which was concerned with provision in primary schools in the lead up to languages becoming compulsory in KS2 and the situation in secondaries in the context of the EBacc and proposed reforms to exams.

The key points for me were that language learning is a reality in 97% of the 700+ primary schools who responded, but that there is a huge spectrum of practice and little consistency, leading to poor transition to KS3. As one (secondary) respondent put it, ‘they do not get a sense of a language learning journey and that is a real problem’. In KS4, the findings show that the EBacc is having only a limited impact on the top-performing pupils and that a new gap is opening up between these and less academic pupils who are often actively discouraged from taking a language beyond KS3.

Over 1000 primary and secondary teachers contributed information and opinions to the survey and the findings are detailed and important. CfBT is to be hugely congratulated for commissioning it and I am looking forward to presenting findings to teachers at Language World.

It is unfortunate that the press were not as interested in the growth of language teaching in primary schools as in the decline in French and German in secondary. Teachers in (some) secondary schools where parents are not particularly supportive pointed to the unfavourable climate for language learning and ‘national prejudices’ against language learning. This struck a chord with me – I have previously blogged about linguistic intolerance. And today we have seen a clear example of linguistic intolerance being linked to anti-European sentiment – a Daily Mail crusade against ‘scratchy labels’ in clothes (because they are translated into too many languages).

So although the report did not find evidence of ‘anti-European attitudes’ impacting on motivation to learn languages, this is where it came from. I would be interested to hear from teachers whether they think this is the case in their school.

Another misconception being reported – and one on which I certainly want to put the record straight – is that the rise of Spanish is unjustified because French and German are the languages most needed by UK nationals in the workplace. This is only half true, for as the State of the Nation report for the British Academy shows, while French and German are the languages most frequently needed in employment, Spanish and a wide range of other languages are also needed. The point being that the growth of Spanish and other languages should not be at the expense of French and German – we need more language skills overall – and a wider range of people studying them.

Why it’s time to Bacc-off!

October 19th, 2012 by

To (mis)quote George W Bush, ‘the trouble with the French is that they haven’t got a word for Baccalaureate’. At least, they haven’t got a word for the sort of things that we’re calling a Baccalaureate. What they describe as a Baccalaureate is a university entrance qualification. Here we’re running round with the word slapping it on to any old educational proposals that could do with sounding important and interesting. The word has something impressive and Napoleonic about it – no wonder Michael Gove nabbed it for his E-Bacc. Except the E-Bacc is not a university entrance qualification, it’s for 14-16 year olds. And it’s not a qualification at all, it’s a performance measure. But it’s a bit like a qualification as well because pupils can ‘get’ the E-Bacc if they’ve got the right package of GCSEs. It’s like a nice boxed set to put them in– or perhaps a shrink-wrapped package to fit handily into a CV or university application.

Just when we thought we’d understood what the E-Bacc was we heard that the E-Bacc would have its own special exams after all – English Baccalaureate Certificates – so when these come out we’ll have separate certificates AND an overall package.

It’s not the shortening to ‘E-Bacc’ that I object to – many of the most useful words in the English language are formed in this way – think of U-bend for instance. It’s the way that everything has suddenly become a Baccalaureate. Just this week we’ve heard we’re also going to have the A-Bacc, which is in fact for Sixth form pupils (Hooray!), but of course technically it’s an E-Bacc as well, being English. But the A-Bacc is not going to be a qualification, it’s just going to be the boxed set thing, with the contents mainly A levels and perhaps a bit of extra project work stuck in for good measure. Nothing wrong with the idea, just that describing it as a Bacc is rather confusing. We’d just got used to the idea that the E-Bacc was for 14-16 year olds hadn’t we? But now we’ve got an A&E Bacc.

Now, what about students who don’t get to get either an E-Bacc or an A-Bacc. Didn’t someone say something about a Technical Baccalaureate? That would be a T-Bacc, wouldn’t it? And maybe it would have vocational options within it such as a Brick-a-Bacc, or a Draw-Bacc? You can see my problem, the word is starting to get all slippery and slimy and not rigorous and Napoleonic at all.

They’re doing it in other parts of the UK too. In Scotland we have a Scottish Baccalaureate and in Wales we have a Welsh one. The Scottish one is for 16-18 year olds (Hooray again!) and it comes in different versions (Languages, Science…) while the Welsh one is for 14-19 year olds and can be taken at 3 separate levels. With all these Baccalaureates, it’s not surprising that George W might get a bit confused. All we need now is for Northern Ireland to come along with a Baby-Bacc and we’d have a full set. A Set-Bacc, even.

Europeans and their languages

September 10th, 2012 by

The second survey that the European Commission has released, Eurobarometer ‘Europeans and their languages’ sheds light on the extent to which Europe is becoming a genuinely multilingual area – as opposed to a conglomeration of monoglots. Across the 27 member states, 54% of adults claim to be able to speak another language besides their mother tongue – but this is a slight decline on the previous figure of 56%. The overall figure obscures some big changes in individual member states since the last survey in 2005. Austria has seen a huge leap of 16 percentage points in the number of adults with foreign language skills, whereas Slovakia, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have all seen declines. These are related to significant falls in the number of people claiming competence in Russian and German. In the UK, as might be expected because of the predominance of English, we are towards the bottom of the table with 39% of the sample confident enough to have a conversation in a foreign language – although this represents a slight increase (+1%) on the previous figure.

But the figures show that, although English is growing as the favoured foreign language in the rest of Europe, the multilingual reality of the continent is much more complex. It is certainly not true that ‘they all speak English’ as some commentators still believe. According to the survey only 38% of Europeans speak enough English to have a conversation and, as can be seen from the chart below, in some countries the figure is much lower:

Eurobarometer chart

The figures overall show that Europe still has a long way to go before attaining the goal of all citizens being able to speak two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue. But if we look at the profile of language competence by age, the outlook for future inter-communication looks very positive. Already 74% of young Europeans (aged 15-24) say they can hold a conversation in another language – a tribute to school systems which have prioritised language learning over the past decade or more. A similar age profile for the previous Eurobarometer survey is not available, but in comparison to the one before that, we can see an increase of about 5 percentage points in the number of 15-24 year olds claiming language skills. Unfortunately the age profile data is not available by country but it is not likely that the UK data would show the same increase in multilingualism amongst young people. English 15-24 year olds responding to the latest survey would have been/be taking their GCSEs between 2003 and 2012 – a period during which we have seen the proportion of the age group studying languages decline to 40% in England and about 25% in Wales. In contrast, those in the 25-39 age group, who took their GCSEs or equivalent between 1988 and 2002, were at school when the national curriculum made a language compulsory up to 16 for everyone. In the longer term, we can expect to see improved confidence in language skills as a result of the policy to make a foreign language compulsory in England from age 7 – and similar moves in Scotland – as long as the gains can be carried through into secondary.

The majority of respondents to the Eurobarometer survey say that most (68%) have learnt their language(s) through language lessons at school and education is clearly where policies to improve language competence need to be directed. However, there is another factor which contributes to a nation’s language capability. More than a quarter of those UK respondents who said they could speak another language said that their first language was not English. The survey shows that people whose first language is not the national language in the country where they live make an important contribution to the overall language competence of the nation. Of those questioned in the UK, only 88% gave English as their first language, with a similar proportion in Germany saying German was not their first language. In France, 93% had a first language other than French – and there is also a high level of bilingualism in countries where regional and other minority languages come strongly into play. Discussions about children with English as an Additional Language so often present the issue in terms of a deficit in English, and overlook the fact that these children have valuable skills in other languages in addition to our national language. These new figures make clear that this is a contribution to the drive for greater multilingualism in Europe, a policy which is widely supported in the interests not only of better communication between peoples but better economic performance both within the Single Market and with third countries.

Waxing lyrical about languages in vocational education

August 16th, 2012 by

Can beauty therapists, trail guides and business students hoping to set up small companies locally benefit from adding a language to their studies? Education providers in Andalusia think so. In fact, they’re so convinced of the edge that another language will give students that they’re teaching these subjects bilingually. The idea of ‘English for hair removal’ sounds like a joke, but that’s exactly what students in Granada are learning – with an eye of future employment in spas and salons on the Costa del Sol. This is all a long way from what happens in the UK where a foreign language is seen almost exclusively as an ‘academic’ subject and is practically absent from work-related learning.

I was lucky enough to go on a study visit to Granada last month, along with a dozen or so fellow educationalists from Germany, Poland, Italy, Denmark, Hungary and Turkey. What we took away is meant to feed into policy and practice in our respective countries, so here, for the UK are the lessons I think we can learn:

1. A ‘CLIL’ approach – where the learning of content and the learning of the language go hand in hand – can be successful even when the subject teacher doesn’t have perfect language skills.

All the courses we saw were being taught by the vocational subject teacher – not specialists in English – and their own level in the language varied widely. (Although Andalusia requires all its bilingual teachers to have at least level B2 on the Common European Framework.) A common-sense response would be: how on earth can they teach complex content without a native-like competence in the language? But the methods and resources they used made sure that it wasn’t only the teacher who was providing the model. They used a task-based approach where it was the students doing the learning, using a mass of web-based resources collected for them on a wiki. Video clips posted there could be viewed as often as students liked – at home as well as in the classroom, and students had to use the language and content provided in tasks such as preparing podcasts and presentations of their own. As one teacher put it, ‘they have to struggle to understand, but once they do, the retention work is already done’. Students could also draw on a Foreign Language Assistant for support, and usually also had separate language lessons for which the language teacher worked closely with the vocational teacher to cover areas of grammar or vocabulary in need of special attention.

2. Foreign language assistants (FLAs) can be a huge support in vocational learning, especially if they have skills in the curriculum area being taught.

All the projects we saw were supported by FLAs who helped both teachers and students with pronunciation and specialist vocabulary. Where this worked best, the FLA had some experience in the subject area being taught. For example, one American FLA supporting trail guides with their English had a college degree in sports science. She was able to accompany them on practical activities – all students learned how to ride a horse – and help them improve their English at the same time.

3. Having a degree of flexibility in FE courses allows for innovation and a more direct response to local labour market conditions.

In England, Alison Wolf has criticised our rigid regulatory and funding system in which the need to comply with complex national frameworks can leave the requirements of local employers out in the cold. In Spain, central government specifies only 60%-65% of the curriculum, leaving much more scope for colleges to adapt courses to local needs. And there is an amazing lack of bureaucracy over assessment and qualifications, leaving teachers and colleges much freer to concentrate on teaching and learning.

4. But the most profound insight was that vocational students can succeed in language learning – and reach respectable levels too. Learning through their subject gives them an immediate practical application that is cognitively challenging, going far beyond basic conversation. For example, in the case of the beauty students, they were learning about the biology of the skin through English – with lots of diagrams and explanation of technical vocabulary to support them. Similarly, the business students were learning to set out management accounts in English and making multilingual websites for their virtual businesses.

All the students we saw were well-motivated, mature, and diligent in their studies. Those with the most English in their courses – virtually an immersion situation- had been stretched to the limit but had made spectacular progress. They were proud of their achievements and their teachers were very proud of them.

In a context where languages are so often cast as ‘academic’ and therefore out of the reach of those who don’t aspire to higher education, seeing vocational students learning and succeeding in foreign languages is a lesson we should all take to heart.

Teresa Tinsley, posted at April 2012

waxing lyrical

Beauty students learning through English at IES Aynadamar, Granada

The face of language learning is changing – that’s why we need Asset

August 16th, 2012 by

Today’s A level figures show yet more drop out from language learning post 16, with the traditional subjects French and German taking the biggest hits. Languages entries now account for barely 4% of the total number of A level entries. Teachers in both the independent sector and state schools say that the exam regime, together with competition from STEM subjects, means pupils are less willing to opt for a language.

But looking back over the last 10 years, although German entries have dropped by a massive 40% and French by 28%, other languages have been growing. We’ve been seeing a diversification of the languages landscape post 16. In 2002, 81% of language entries were for French, German and Spanish. This year that proportion has dropped to 71%, and within that, Spanish has grown by a third.

More and more people are coming to languages through non-traditional routes. Rather than by studying a single modern language from the beginning of secondary school or earlier, some are changing languages or perhaps adding new ones later in their career. Others are taking A levels in languages they already have experience of in their homes or communities, or through having lived abroad. We shouldn’t feel threatened by this, we should welcome it, because as an English-speaking country, there is no one language we ought to be learning – we need competence in as many of the world’s languages as we can. And if we have them on our doorsteps, let’s develop them to a high level so they can be used in working life.

But neither the Government nor the exam board OCR seem to appreciate this. OCR has decided to drop its Asset Languages qualifications in 20 of its 25 languages. For some of these languages (Cantonese, Cornish, Hindi, Somali, Swedish, Tamil and Yoruba) for which there is no GCSE or A level, Asset languages was the only qualification available. So there will be no way of assessing competence in these languages, and no encouragement for anyone who speaks those languages or is learning them, to develop and accredit their skills.

But the issue is not just about languages for which no other accreditation exists. Asset provides a way of getting people started on the language learning ladder by accrediting the very first steps in a new language. It also offers learners the choice of being assessed in different skills separately – for example, reading and writing at a higher level than speaking and listening. Teachers of languages like Japanese have stressed how important this is when introducing a new and potentially difficult language. And it not only gives the learners confidence, but it enables teachers to get started and introduce new languages at a level they feel comfortable with. If we want to build our capacity in a more diverse range of languages, this is the way forward. Of course, native speaker teachers are a wonderful resource, but we need to build our home grown expertise too, and this is the way to do it, through small steps.

Apart from the benefits of its flexibility, many teachers have remarked that Asset Languages is a much better exam than GCSE. It is rigorous, adaptable, and many teachers feel it provides a truer reflection than GCSE of how much language has been learnt. The GCSE has been criticised, among other things, for encouraging rote learning.

The face of language learning is changing. We need more and better qualifications in a wide range of languages. That’s why I have signed Speak to the Future’s petition to Save Asset Languages. If you agree, please add your signature, it only takes a few seconds.


What the latest EU language surveys tell us about the UK (part 1)

June 21st, 2012 by

The European Commission has published two new surveys on language learning, one on the achievement of 14-15 year old pupils across 14 countries and the other on language skills and attitudes in the adult population.

The European Survey on Language Competence tested pupils across Europe on the level of competence reached in the first and second foreign languages taught in their education systems. On the level of competence reached in the first foreign language, England came bottom of the table, with only 9% of pupils tested reaching level B1 or above on the Common European Framework. These pupils were tested on their French – pupils in almost all the other countries taking part were tested on their English. On average, 42% reached B1 level. Some people may see this comparison as unfair in that the demand and motivation to learn English in other countries far outstrips the enthusiasm to learn French here. Clearly we can’t compare ourselves with countries like Sweden or Malta which topped the table, where English functions more or less as a second language. It is interesting though, that France comes second to bottom – another country where, perhaps, an over-inflated sense of importance given to the national language gets in the way of overcoming monolingual status?

On the test of the second foreign language, England did a little better, with 6% reaching level B1 compared to the EU average of 25%. Sweden, top of the table for English as its first language, drops to the bottom when pupils are tested on its second foreign language – Spanish. Another example perhaps of how English dominates the language learning scene and sucks away motivation to learn other languages. The range of languages taught as second languages is much wider. France, like Sweden, plumps for Spanish. Spain, Portugal and Greece teach French as their second foreign language, and almost everywhere else including England, it is German. Given the predominance of English, should we perhaps take English out of the equation and compare England to other countries only on how well pupils are doing in other languages? Certainly this would narrow the gap a little, but it still leaves us trailing most other countries. So what is going wrong?

Some will no doubt question the methodology, and want to argue that perhaps the types of tests set were more in tune with assessment methods used in other countries than our own. The Common European Framework is supposed to provide an internationally-valid description of levels, but the methods by which such levels are assigned may still be flawed, or favour one type of education system over another. I don’t really buy into this argument – if this were so why would Sweden be top of the table on first language, but bottom on second? Why would England and France, with radically differing approaches to education and assessment, both appear at the bottom of the table on first language competence?

Others may, unfortunately blame teachers and teaching methods in England. Although of course there is some poor teaching in languages as with other subjects, I’d be very wary indeed of drawing this conclusion. Evidence from the Language Trends survey shows it is much more likely to be related to the low status of foreign languages within the secondary curriculum, and with the stranglehold of GCSE exams which many language teachers feel are a barrier to real learning. Top of teachers’ concerns in Language Trends was the time available for language teaching – and this is backed up by a recent OECD survey which showed that England sets aside the least amount of time for language teaching at ages 12-14 than any other country. Teachers who responded to Language Trends felt that this, combined with the constraints of the GCSE syllabus, was preventing them focussing on the more rewarding and inspiring aspects of language learning that were the key to pupils making real progress.

Today we have heard that Secretary of State Michael Gove intends to scrap GCSEs and replace them with a different type of exam. This might provide an opportunity to look at some deep-seated problems in language learning, but it’s vital that it should open up, rather than close down opportunities to teach languages in motivating, creative ways, with lots of cultural contact and opportunities to use the language. Judging from the response to the news so far, it doesn’t seem that teachers think that this will be the case.

We also need to think about participation in language learning. The European survey published today measures quality rather than quantity. Languages are compulsory up to at least 16 in all the other countries which took part. Therefore, while in other countries the proportions of pupils quoted as reaching the different levels can be regarded as representative of the cohort as a whole, in England, the 9% of pupils reaching B1 cannot be taken to stand for 9% of all pupils, but 9% of those who are studying a language at that age – more like just 4% of the whole cohort. The reform of GCSE and the review of the secondary curriculum therefore need to take into account not just how to raise standards for the minority who study a language, but how to boost participation and achievement overall.

Part 2 on the latest Eurobarometer survey to follow.