The sad decline of languages in UK schools

I mean the decline of taught, modern foreign languages, not sweary bad language (I’m sure that’s probably still learnt and applied with enthusiasm).

This article in the Guardian, Who still wants to learn languages?, raises a few key points from recent studies, as well as interesting observations. In summary:

  • Funding for languages has been cut and departments are closing across the education spectrum, from schools to universities.
  • Since language learning was made optional after the age of 14 in 2004,  numbers have been dropping. (Just in state schools? The article’s not clear.)
  • There’s a sharp distinction between provision at state schools and at independents (“38 per cent of 14-year-olds in the state sector were studying one modern language and 1.9 per cent were studying two; 99 per cent of 14-year-olds at independents studied at least one language”).
  • As a result, “the experience of other cultures is now confined to an elite”.
  • Languages are losing out in the (short-term) education market because they are a long-term choice in terms of competency and gratification.
  • German is losing out the most because of its profile, difficulty and competition from non-traditional languages.
  • “There is only one UK citizen working in continental Europe for every four EU citizens working in the UK.
  • “Studies prove [that] learning a language makes [children] better at learning everything else.”

Learn a language to know your own

However, the end of the article includes two of the more interesting points. Firstly:

“Whoever is not acquainted with languages knows nothing of his own (Goethe).”

I was in school at a time when the state education system decided we didn’t need to learn English grammar. We studied English language, yes, but I remember mostly creative writing rather than covering verbs, nouns, modifiers, the subjunctive and so on.

However, because I also chose to study German and French, I learnt a little about those things. And it’s only now that I’ve taught myself Spanish and help my local friends with their English that I’m learning more about my own language.

(Because I grew up in Wales, it was also compulsory to learn Welsh between the ages of about 6 and 13. I would have chosen Welsh at GCSE too, but the selection process made that a difficult choice.)

Speak a language, understand a people

It’s the comment from a source at the end that resonates with me now; of course, it may well not have done when I was 15. And that’s why it’s so important for the choice not to be left to 15-year-olds (and younger).

“[This trend] is disastrous [because] it leads to people leading insular lives – intellectually, professionally, culturally.”

I’ve learnt so much about the culture I’m living in simply by hearing how they refer to ideas in their own language, and thereby understanding the emphasis of those things in their lives.


  1. Languages are falling out of favour because they are difficult, and people are too lazy to learn them.

    That’s why soft options like media studies have proliferated.

    Unfortunately, in our PC world, nobody is bold enough to say this simple truth.

    It’s a downward spiral, of course, because you end up with not enough language teachers to teach those dwindling numbers who do want to learn one.

    In schools near me, there are Australian supply teachers who teach French – even though they are not fluent in the subject.

    I despair.

  2. admin

    Hi Will; thanks for your comment.

    I agree with you; I think that they aren’t a popular choice because they’re difficult for many students to achieve good grades in. And I think that therein lies the problem…

    There seems to be so much pressure on schools and students to achieve year-on-year improvements in exam passes and grades to meet government targets that children are being given easier options (by the same government’s education systems) to choose from.

    No-one can possibly have missed the yearly blanket coverage of GCSE and A-Level results. It seems a shame that learning appears to be (for the state schools) becoming about getting the highest grades in whatever area, rather than okay grades in useful, challenging and ultimately rewarding subjects.

    Perhaps the tables should change focus from numbers of passes overall to passes in specific subjects?

    Some people might say ‘you can’t force children to study a subject they don’t like or struggle in’, but everyone has to do maths and science for a reason. Why not a language too?

  3. I agree with your analysis that pressure for improved grades seems to have coincided with the emergence of less taxing subjects.

    Michael Gove suggested yesterday on Andrew Marr that some sort of change was likely, possibly the replacement of GCSEs with an ‘English Baccalaureate’.

    I didn’t think I’d hear a Tory championing foreign languages, but there does seem to be the political appetite for an end to the current farce.

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