foreign language learning
HEPI notes that action is needed to avert the growing crisis in foreign language learning in the UK. Source: Shutterstock

British youth are lagging behind their European counterparts in language learning. 

According to a report released by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), only 32 percent of 16-to-30-year olds in the UK feel confident reading and writing in another language, compared to the rest of the EU’s 89 percent average. 

HEPI, an independent UK think-tank, was established in 2002 to shape the higher education policy debate through evidence. 

The report added that learning a new language should be compulsory for pupils up to the age of 16, and called for an overturn of the government’s 2004 decision to drop compulsory study of languages at key stage four (when pupils take GCSE exams) which has led to a steep decline in the number of students in England pursuing languages at colleges and universities.

While the decline in languages predates Brexit, the report’s author Megan Bowler, a third-year undergraduate studying Classics at Oriel College, Oxford said existing language deficiencies could be exacerbated by an exodus of EU citizens.

“The British Council’s 2019 Language Trends survey found the EU vote had a divisive effect on attitudes to school language learning: 45 percent of English state schools report the implications of Brexit as a ‘major challenge’ to providing high-quality languages teaching, due to staffing concerns and student motivation,” said Bowler.

The author notes that language ability is an asset for all disciplines and career paths; mastering another language is associated with an internationalist mindset, while the defence of language learning is charged with wider social issues beyond the scope of education policy.

“The UK’s position as an academic and scientific world leader is also at risk, with a decreasing proportion of international research published in English,” she said, adding that Brexit also poses significant practical challenges for languages in higher education, including staffing, research links and study abroad schemes. 

Decline in foreign language uptake

In the past several years, higher education has been experiencing declines in the uptake of traditional languages. 

Between 2010-11 and 2016-17, student numbers for French declined 45 percent, German declined by 43 percent and Italian by 63 percent. Meanwhile, languages provision is vulnerable to departmental closures and downsizing.

Meanwhile, an EU Commission survey found that 75 percent of young people in Ireland were confident reading and writing in at least two languages, 37 percent could read and write in two and 34 percent in three.

HEPI makes several recommendations in their report, including:

  • Some form of language learning should be compulsory for all students at Key Stage 4. 
  • A-Level language courses should become more varied. For example, allowing students a greater choice of components exploring culture, media and linguistics. 
  • The government should provide additional grant funding to supplement tuition fees in light of declining enrolments and growing vulnerability for lesser taught languages. 
  • Languages departments should be proactive in widening participation, particularly in promoting beginner language opportunities to pupils of all backgrounds; taster experiences can demystify languages courses.

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