The UK’s Foreign Language Crisis

Written by Amy Britton

The UK is in the middle of a foreign language crisis. It is widely known that the UK is one of the most backwards countries in terms of language-learning and is severely lacking when it comes to linguistic skills. Being from a language specialist school, I have been enlightened with the importance of languages. With the world becoming increasingly connected through globalisation, languages are gradually turning into valuable selling points on a young person’s CV. So then, why is the number of students choosing to take a language as a GCSE in the UK drastically falling?

From the start of my secondary education, I studied Latin, French and Spanish and had to take at least two languages at GCSE level. But with GCSE languages not being compulsory since 2004, it is no surprise that many students opt out of taking a language. The UK’s preoccupation with grades steers students away from learning languages, as they are often much harder to get higher grades in. Schools frequently mention that GCSE exam layout and content creates a barrier for learning languages. From my own experience of learning languages in the UK, it is incredibly difficult to gain fluency with the set phrases and limited vocabulary that we are taught in order to gain the highest mark possible. Being able to actually speak a language in the real world seems to come second to the number that one is able to put on their CV. The lack of engagement with native speakers and minimal trips abroad only add to the problem of fluency. 

It could be said that children in the UK are set up to fail in languages due to the lack of language learning in primary schools. It is stated that 50% of primary schools teach foreign languages for less than 45 minutes a week, whilst others opt for more sporadic teaching. It is a proven fact that the best time for languages to be absorbed is during childhood and therefore, this statistic is unimaginably worrying. As it gets harder to pick up the necessary linguistic abilities that you need to learn a language as you get older, many students won’t even attempt to study a second language. Furthermore, with many students having to move to different sixth forms or colleges for their education past GCSEs, there is no guarantee that where they choose to study will even offer their language past GCSE level. The list of pros for studying a language is quickly diminishing. 

The issue of Brexit has also been brought up in the debate surrounding the importance in language-learning. Many parents in poorer areas have begun to question whether foreign languages should be taught in school, as they take away teaching time for the core subjects and may be of no use to their children due to it being increasingly difficult to work in the EU. This has led to the fear that languages will soon become exclusively available to privileged children and cause disadvantaged students to lose even more opportunities that could have been open to them by being able to speak a second language. 

Luckily for me, my grammar school had a sixth form – I didn’t have to move and I had the opportunity to meet new students from all backgrounds who had joined our school. My school only offered the International Baccalaureate instead of A Levels in which learning a foreign language was compulsory, whether that be at a higher, standard or beginners level. It was shocking how most of the students that had come from grammar schools would study a language at a higher or standard level compared to those from comprehensive schools, who mostly had no option but to study a language as a beginner. Why are comprehensive schools excluded from learning key linguistic skills? Languages should not turn into another subject that is monopolised by the rich minority, since connecting with other humans is a basic necessity. 

It is fair to say that I believe the government’s stance towards foreign language education is incredibly old-fashioned. We should be encouraging young people to want to study a second or even third language rather than make them seem less desirable or useful as other core subjects. The fact that a foreign language isn’t considered a core subject is even more criminal. The UK needs to close their Google translate tab and open their minds to the importance of foreign languages.

Featured image courtesy of Unsplash via Annika Gordon. Image licence found here. No changes have been made to this image.

An aspiring journalist studying History at The University of York.

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