Number of language students plummets: is compulsion the answer?


Beth Palfrey discusses alternatives to compulsory language learning.

The declining amount of students applying to study Modern Foreign Languages at University in the UK is by no means a new phenomenon. In fact, the total number of universities that provide courses in Modern Languages has fallen by 40% since 1998. However, it would appear that the intake of languages students has reached a poignant low in recent years. For entry of the academic year 2012-2013, according to statistics produced by UCAS, applications from languages students fell by 7.7% on the previous year’s figures.

In an international survey, it has been revealed that as a nation, we are one of the worst countries in the EU for speaking other languages, being outranked by France, Germany, Italy and Spain as well as Belgium, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Croatia in terms of quantity of languages spoken. In 2002, teenagers in the UK on average learnt 1.3 per student, equivalent to most other EU countries, however, when the study was conducted using data from 27 countries, the UK came out joint bottom with Hungary and Ireland. These statistics are hardly surprising, given the prestige awarded to English as an international language of communication.

We are one of the worst countries in the EU for speaking other languages.

Foreign languages are so useful as they can be applied in a wide range of careers; for example, translating, interpreting, and language teachers. For many civil service and business positions, language skills are one of the main components required. Moreover, in a supposed multicultural society such as we live in the UK, there is a surprisingly high proportion of segregation, and in certain instances low tolerance of other faiths, nationalities, and languages. It is of the utmost importance to highlight that students who learn Foreign Languages not only learn a language, but also the cultural norms and customs associated with it, which undoubtedly helps to create a more tolerant, liberal and accepting citizen.

The decrease in university entrants is mirrored throughout the entire educational pyramid, with less students choosing to study languages at GCSE, AS and A-Level.  In 2002, 75% of pupils taking their GCSE’s sat exams for a language, which by 2010 had reached only 43%. These figures could be attributed to the last Labour government, which in 2004 ended the obligatory study of languages for over 14’s. The decline of language students emerging from Universities with a degree has sparked Government fears, and has led to the proposal that the learning of a Foreign Language should be a compulsory measure from the age of seven in English primary schools, a scheme which is set to be implemented by 2014.

We are all born with the ability to learn and acquire language, as we do so with our native tongue; it is an inherent part of being human. Thus, the argument that it isn’t fair to make languages compulsory as some people cannot do them is unconvincing, although it is important to acknowledge that it does get harder to learn a new language as we get older, as our capacity to retain is reduced, compared to our infant stage.  Therefore, the Government initiative to introduce a Foreign Language to seven year olds would greatly increase our capacity to (and likelihood of) continuing to learn languages after they become non-compulsory. We are not discussing seven year olds talking about global warming in French, but merely introducing numbers, colours, and basic phrases at younger ages.

We are all born with the ability to learn and acquire language.

Although the evidence for making language-learning obligatory is compelling, it should remain a personal liberty. I think back to my personal experience of languages at school. As with every subject, there are the more able and less able students. Often, the students who struggled would feel demoralised, or sometimes distract the pupils who wanted to learn. On the other hand, the more capable students were not always stretched and challenged. Languages are like maths, some people find them easier than others. Therefore, mixed ability classes cannot possibly cater to the needs of everyone, which in turn raises further issues. Would the lower sets feel further castigated at being graded and less inclined to work? If languages were to be compulsory, then the issue of setting would be problematic, however, if they remain a personal choice, the people who chose to study them do so out of passion and enjoyment of the subject.

The statistics speak for themselves with regard to the decline of languages, but as it has already been outlined, the importance of language learning per se and the skills assets of language graduates are invaluable in the workplace and always in high demand.  If we cannot actively encourage more participation in the subject, then the balance between demand and supply will be out of equilibrium. Whilst the correlation between compulsory language learning at GCSE and output of languages students is fairly obvious, we cannot condone obligatory language learning at higher levels, as it contradicts freedom of choice. However, hopefully if a scheme for language learning for seven year olds comes to fruition, then more children will be exposed to languages at a younger age, and more likely to continue to study them: an effect which should permeate throughout the entire educational system.

Beth is currently in her first year of studying Spanish and Italian at the University of Durham. She enjoys netball, attending debates, socialising and going abroad.


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