Universities UK is part of a coalition of partners today (7 Jul) putting forward to Government a strategy to boost language learning, which has fallen drastically in recent years.

The British Academy, the British Council, Universities UK and the Association of School and College Leaders believe this strategy is essential to the economic and social strength of the UK as it emerges from COVID-19.

The economic cost of the UK's linguistic underperformance, in terms of lost trade and investment has been estimated at 3.5% of GDP. Languages are vital for fostering effective international cooperation and commercial links, as well as for improving educational performance, cognitive function and skills, opportunity, intercultural understanding, and social cohesion.  

'Towards a National Languages Strategy: Education and Skills' is the first UK-wide languages initiative in a generation, and consists of short and medium-term actions for schools, colleges, universities, employers and others. It takes account of the different language and policy landscapes of the UK's four jurisdictions.

The proposals, which require only modest funding and are easy-to-implement, include:

  • Creating a central point of access for language learning resources in a new 'Languages UK' portal
  • Reviewing grading and content for GCSE and A-level language exams to ensure a level playing field for students
  • Incentivising take up of languages post-16, through financial support and new qualifications
  • Determining best practice approaches for languages in primary schools and enabling teachers to deliver them
  • Creating further intensive schemes for language learning
  • Extending ambassador and mentor schemes.

Despite the Government's aim for 90% of pupils in England to take a language (modern or ancient) at GCSE by 2025, fewer than half of them do. Across the UK, the number of undergraduates in modern languages fell by 54% between 2008–9 and 2017–18. With fewer students applying, at least 10 modern languages departments have closed in the last decade, and a further nine significantly downsized.

Professor Neil Kenny FBA, the British Academy's languages lead, said:

"With the COVID-19 pandemic plunging the UK into its worst recession in living memory and exacerbating disparities in educational opportunity, and with the changing relationship to Europe necessitating the development of wider commercial and diplomatic relationships and the recalibration of existing ones, there has never been a more pressing need to take a strategic approach to language learning. Indeed, the question is, 'If not now, then when?'

"Together with a coalition of partners, we have devised a joined-up and cost-effective strategy that tackles the language deficiency problem from a range of angles, from teaching in schools, colleges and community centres right through to university research, and across employers, both business and public sector.

"If Government and civil society together succeed in reversing the persistent decline in take up of languages throughout the education pipeline, the UK could become a linguistic powerhouse: more prosperous, productive, influential, innovative, knowledgeable, culturally richer, healthier and more socially cohesive. Languages should not just be for the socially advantaged, but for everyone. We must act soon to make this a reality."

Vivienne Stern, Director, Universities UK International said:

"We're proposing a national languages strategy at a time when the UK is most in need of graduates with the skills to form invaluable international partnerships. International collaboration has been a vital part of the UK's response to Covid-19, and will be a cornerstone of its recovery. If the UK government is serious about their ambitions for a Global Britain, we must upskill our graduates with the linguistic and cultural understanding to shape an outward-looking, post-Covid and post-Brexit UK."

Professor Janice Carruthers, Arts and Humanities Research Council Priority Area Leadership Fellow for Modern Languages said:  

"Language skills are crucial to our economy, and education is pivotal in achieving the changes needed. Grounded in a strong research base, Towards a National Languages Strategy offers a set of strategic yet realistic proposals that are tailored to the different educational contexts across the UK".

"Putting these recommendations into place will help remove barriers to language learning and will encourage a much-needed boost to uptake in our schools and universities, with all sectors called upon to play a part in bringing about positive change."

Action needed to avert the growing crisis in language learning 

9th Jan 2020: The @HEPI_news Higher Education Policy Institute’s latest report, A Languages Crisis? (HEPI Report 123) by Megan Bowler, highlights a huge drop in demand for learning languages and makes a set of recommendations for reversing the fall.

The paper shows only 32 per cent of 15-to-30 year olds from the UK can read and write in two or more languages (including their first language).

This is less than half the level in the second-placed EU country (71 per cent in Hungary), and far behind France (79 per cent), Germany (91 per cent) and Denmark (99 per cent).

From page 13 of the report, based on a European Commission Survey

The report includes 15 recommends for addressing the challenge, including:

  1. ensuring more varied GCSE and A-Level courses;
  2. making a foreign language compulsory at Key Stage 4 (KS4), with accreditation (either a GCSE / National or alternative vocational or community language qualification) encouraged but optional.
  3. increasing teaching staff numbers through new measures, such as conditional financial incentives and including all language teachers on the Shortage Occupations List; and
  4. where tuition fees exist, supplementing fee income with additional government funding to safeguard minority languages and facilitate free additional language-learning for students and staff.

Megan Bowler, the author of the report, is a third-year Classics undergraduate at the University of Oxford. She said:

"The cultural and political implications of Brexit mean it is more urgent than ever that we re-evaluate our attitudes towards languages. Learning a language develops an analytical and empathetic mindset, and is valuable for individuals of all ages, interests and abilities.

"It was a big mistake to scrap compulsory foreign languages at GCSE. Rather than continuing to present languages as not suitable for everyone, we need to include a broader range of pupils learning through a variety of qualifications geared to different needs.

"Given the shortage of language skills in the workforce, we should safeguard higher education language courses, particularly those involving less widely-taught languages, and prioritise extra-curricular language learning opportunities for students from all disciplines."

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

"The decision to limit language learning in schools by making GCSE languages voluntary is probably the single most damaging education policy implemented in England so far this century. The UK is bottom of the pile for the number of young people familiar with another language, and miles behind every EU country.

"The problems this has caused are now hitting university Languages Departments hard. Student numbers for French and German have almost halved since 2010 and, for Italian, they have fallen by around two-thirds.

"Boris Johnson is the first Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan to have studied Languages at university. So we hope he will adopt some urgent new policies to encourage a love of languages and to show to the rest of the world that post-Brexit Britain will not cut itself off from the rest of the world."

Vivienne Stern - Director of Universities UK International - said:

“This report adds to previous evidence of declining student numbers in some humanities subjects and particularly in languages. With the government yet to commit to either continued access to Erasmus+ or an alternative fully-funded national scheme after Brexit, there could be further reductions in the number of students enrolling onto modern language courses.

“In our Solving Future Skills Challenges report Universities UK noted that demand for higher level skills is increasing across a range of levels and subjects, and with an overall shortage of graduates, a strong base of language skills is required not only to meet the needs of employers and our economy, but for the success of our culture and society.

“Along with partners including the British Academy, we believe there is a need for a national languages strategy and would welcome the opportunity to work with government on what this could involve.”

 Bernhard Niesner, CEO and Co-Founder, Busuu comments: 

“Language learning in the UK is a broken system that we desperately need to fix – especially in light of Brexit. The fact that less than a third of young Britons can read or write in more than one language, whereas the large majority of youngsters in France and Germany are able to, proves that learning a language in a traditional setting is too complicated.

"Beyond simply incentivising students by boosting grades, the UK needs to do much more when it comes to giving both teachers and students access to the tools and technology that enable language learning to be more enjoyable and effective.

"The UK also needs to do a much better job when it comes to selling the wider benefits of learning a language – rather than just motivating students to pass an exam or to get a GCSE. There is already a shortage in language skills in the workforce, and if the younger generation progresses this trend, it will affect the UK’s future business success." 

Kirsten Campbell-Howes, Head of Education, Busuu comments:

"At Busuu, we've see the number of UK language learners on our platform more than double in the last year, reflecting strong demand from British people to understand and communicate in foreign languages - particularly Spanish, French and German. Anything that the UK can do to boost opportunities and enthusiasm for language learning is, therefore, a major step forward."

Megan Bowler is a third-year undergraduate studying Classics at Oriel College, Oxford. During vacations, she tutors in Latin, Ancient Greek and English and she recently completed an internship at HEPI.

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