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).
The report includes 15 recommends for addressing the challenge, including:
- ensuring more varied GCSE and A-Level courses;
- 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.
- increasing teaching staff numbers through new measures, such as conditional financial incentives and including all language teachers on the Shortage Occupations List; and
- 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
- 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.
- 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