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The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Action needed to avert the growing crisis in language learning

  • 9 January 2020

The 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 new 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.

Notes for Editors

  1. 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.
  2. The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to help shape the higher education debate with evidence. It is the UK’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded by higher education institutions and other organisations that wish to see a vibrant policy debate


  1. John Bald says:

    I discussed these issues at the link below, at the time GCSE language was made optional. The stat of language classes in Y10 and 11 was so poor that it was damaging the rest of pupils’ education and leading to widespread truancy.

    There were two main errors. First, the idea that exposing children to language and tolerating errors led to learning. Second, mixed ability teaching that prevented lower-atttaining pupils from getting the detailed support and explanation they needed, and so led to failure and dropout. This problem has still not been tackled, and schools have given up. Languages need to be rebuilt.

    GCSE coursework was dropped becaus of widespread corruption – I had 7 examples of thisin German alone, including a pupil of mine whose teacher wrote the coursework. A senior Ofsted official said that this was so widespread that they couldn’t stop it. I fully agree on the pace of listening, and like the new Edexcel listening paper for foundation, that sets a more reasonable pace. The key, though, is to develop effective teaching methods for pupils of all abilities. If not, compulsory languages will amount to no more than compulsory failure.

  2. Luke Reynolds says:

    I work for a university which has offered language modules (credit baring except where accreditation’s dictate curriculum) to all students free of charge for some years. From the dwindling numbers taking up the offer it is clear the problem runs deeper than availability, cost and time.

  3. albert wright says:

    When considering “languages” we should not forget the “language of numbers”.

    In international comparisons UK students generally have worse results in numeracy compared to literacy.

    I believe this is also the case with students within the UK.

    The decline in the number of students studying mathematics and science subjects is also a matter of concern and greater encouragement should be given to promoting these subjects.

    While “coding” is now being taught on a wider basis, this alone will not be enough to meet the demand for data scientists.

  4. Joshua Brown says:

    Languages seem to be perennially in crisis! For a historical study linking ‘crisis’ and language learning, readers may be interested in the following paper “On ‘Crisis’ and the pessimism of disciplinary discourse in foreign languages: An Australian perspective”:

  5. Julian Gravatt says:

    Good report.

    A couple of points to add on participation by 16-18 year olds. The report discusses falling numbers of A-level French and German students on Pages 26/27 and discusses the fact that the post-16 curriculum is narrow in England, Wales and N.Ireland. I think it’s worth adding that 16-18 education in England is also underfunded and badly organised by DfE:

    1. On funding, DfE did not change 16-18 funding rates for 7 years between 2013 and 2020 which means that schools and colleges have had to make efficiencies to cover inflation and pay rises. SFCA’s funding impact survey showed that 68% of responding institutions had moved to a 3 A-level curriculum and that 51% had dropped at least one language A-level

    2. On organisation, DfE policies to encourage competition while protecting core 11-16 school funding has resulted in a situation where hundreds of schools run small sixth forms using pre-16 funds. In London, for example, DfE’s post-16 area review programme found that 221 of the 375 school sixth forms in the capital had fewer than 200 pupils. DfE now requires new sixth forms to offer 15 A-level subjects and have a minimum cohort of 200 but the risk in dispersing 1.1 million young people across so many schools and colleges is that it makes specialist subjects unviable

  6. Inga-Beth Hinchliffe says:

    Very interesting. Very sad.

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