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Language education in the UK - how are we shaping up for our post-Brexit global role?

April 16, 2019

Business needs qualified linguists


At Priory Translations our business is dependent on highly skilled linguists, and it seems that we are not alone. According to a recent report by the job search site Indeed quoted in Relocate Magazine, the demand for linguists has risen by 2.7% since 2016, while at the same time, the number of young people studying modern foreign languages has continued to fall. With patent translation demanding the ability to translate scientific and technical texts with precision and accuracy, our in-house colleagues need a mother-tongue level of English and we are among many businesses expecting to require multilingual staff in the future. Where will the next generation of linguists come from? And has Brexit made a bad situation worse?


UK “nowhere near” its linguistic potential


On 8 October 2013, under the headline “Modern languages – degree courses in freefall”, the Guardian quoted the Confederation of British Industry as saying “the UK is being held back by a lack of language skills, crucial to doing business abroad. Lack of linguistic ability is acting as a “tax on UK trade”. “In 1998, there were 93 universities offering specialist language degrees, now only 56 do, a 40% drop”.


This decline has accelerated since 2007 and things do not appear to have improved in the last six years. In the report “Languages in the UK - A Call for Action” (published in February 2019), the British Academy summarised the current situation: “The UK is currently nowhere near to fulfilling its linguistic potential. The global nature of English does not make up for that underperformance, which is worsening each year. There has been a drastic and continuing decline in the numbers studying languages at secondary school and consequently at university, especially over the past two decades. There is no indication that the Government’s aim for 90% of pupils in England to take a language (modern or ancient) at GCSE by 2025 will come even close to being achieved: it remains stubbornly below 50% (down from 76% in 2002). This has produced a vicious circle in which fewer teachers are trained, with the result that provision and uptake at school are further damaged.”


According to the British Council Language Trends report 2018, after removal of the compulsory requirement for pupils to study a language at Key Stage 4 (age 14-16) in 2004, “The proportion of the cohort taking a language GCSE dropped from 76% in 2002 to 40% in 2011. This rose to 49% in 2014 as a result of the English Baccalaureate which was introduced as an accountability measure for schools in 2011.  However, since then, numbers have not continued to increase [...]”. (British Council, Language Trends 2018)


Fewer students taking GCSE inevitably leads to lower demand for A level courses, and this effect is compounded by severe funding constraints for sixth form study, meaning that classes with smaller student numbers are the ones to be cut. “Fifty-one per cent of schools and colleges have dropped language courses – most commonly, A-level German, Spanish and French courses. Over a third have dropped science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) courses.” (Survey by the Sixth Form Colleges Association published on 6 March 2019 and reported in the TES).


The smaller pool of students completing GCSEs and A Levels in languages has led to closures in university modern language provision, most recently at the University of Hull, which is suspending admissions to modern languages degrees with the exception of Chinese.

Graphic from Jocelyn Wyburd’s presentation, mentioned below


Fewer language graduates, together with a decline in the numbers of European Union citizens staying in or coming to the UK as a result of Brexit, means that fewer qualified linguists are available for roles in education, industry, commerce, the forces, civil service, police and secret services.


Recent reporting on the state of languages in the UK indicates that Brexit is contributing to a perfect storm.


On 10 November 2018 at the London Language Show Jocelyn Wyburd, Director of the Language Centre, University of Cambridge, presented on “The Landscape for Languages in the UK” after Brexit, in which she identified a number of threats to language learning in the UK, particularly in England, and advocated for national language policies and continued lobbying. [download the presentation here 1)]


In addition to the problems of teacher supply and funding already mentioned, she highlighted longstanding concerns about elitism and exam difficulty, as well as the more recent influence of syllabus reform, that have also been identified by the British Council. According to the Language Trends Report 2018, only a third of candidates achieve grade C or above. Recent introduction of a new GCSE syllabus, thought to provide a better bridge to A level, has increased the tendency for language study to be concentrated in higher-performing schools and more able pupils, while increasingly pupils on free school meals (used as an indicator of poverty) do not have access to language study. Uptake of languages continues to be unequal both by socioeconomic status and by gender. 63% of A level language students are female, while greater provision of languages in independent and grammar schools means that better-off students have better access to languages. (British Council, Language Trends 2018)


Another factor considered by Wyburd was that currently, while the European Union has had a “Mother tongue plus two” policy since 2002 for languages in schools, Scotland a “1 plus 2” policy and Wales “English & Welsh plus 1”, England does not have a specific languages strategy. In February 2019, the British Academy called for the government to “Adopt and implement a national strategy for languages” and in her presentation, Wyburd also advocated for national language policies and continued lobbying as a way to reverse the decline in language study.

More generally, Wyburd also highlighted the dominance of English as lingua franca and “anglophone arrogance” as factors in low levels of language skills in the UK, and there is some evidence that Brexit may be contributing to this. In just over a third of schools surveyed by the British Council for Language Trends, teachers reported that Brexit is having a negative effect on language learning. “We regularly have questions from pupils or parents about the value of learning a language, as “we don’t need it” and “everyone should speak English” […] Brexit is often touted as a reason not to do a language”.


Positive factors - basis for a future languages policy?


In the words of the British Council, “[A]ll should recognise that the UK’s language deficit remains a threat to our overall international competitiveness, influence and standing in the world, as well as to our citizens’ ability to play a meaningful role in the global economy and in an increasingly networked world.” (Languages for the Future 2017)

However, while the overall fall in the number of students learning foreign languages and the decrease in access to language qualifications may suggest that the future of language education in the UK is not looking good, there are reasons for optimism.

Many individual schools, especially international schools, are doing excellent work teaching languages to a high level and promoting the value of the subject, and it is hoped that a way will be found to continue UK participation in Erasmus+ exchange programmes after Brexit. In addition, there has been a rise in the number of adults learning languages using informal, self-taught online and app-based methods. Professional language bodies, who have seen their membership increase in recent years, are also working to raise the public profile of languages. Here at Priory, the number of requests for work experience placements has also been encouraging, showing that while there may be fewer people studying languages, there are still students out there hoping to be able to work in this field in the future.


The British Council's Languages for the Future points a way ahead:

Graphic from Jocelyn Wyburd’s presentation, mentioned above


1) Presentation by Jocelyn Wyburd, Director of the Language Centre, University of Cambridge, at the London Language Show on 10 November 2018


Also see our blog of 3 June 2016 on Languages after Brexit.


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