Modern Languages in the UK have suffered what the Irish Times recently called ‘a precipitous drop’ and the country is becoming ‘increasingly monoglot’.
The drop in uptake started in the 1990s but the most recent figures show the biggest fall in pupils taking exams in German: for GCSE the drop between last summer and this was almost 6% (just under 34 000 pupils) and A-level entries fell by 17% to just over 2,000. Both Spanish and French also suffered a drop, but at under 13% for A-levels it was somewhat smaller and from a higher base: French and Spanish saw just over 6,500 and 7,500 entries respectively.
Nevertheless, if we consider the previous drops and that a lot of pupils take more than one language at A-levels, the total number of language learners is staggeringly low, recognition by the Government that this is bad has been overdue.
Yet, teachers lack both time and means to change the situation merely through another action plan. Teachers are overlooked when it comes to consultation about changes such as the new GCSE languages curriculum. They are depressed about having to put fulfilling the requirements of the curriculum and exam preparation over making languages interesting and varied for their pupils.Dr Ruth Whittle, University of Birmingham
Vorsprung durch Deutsch (getting ahead through German) is how the Goethe Institut titled its press release in March on the Government’s announcement that it planned to create language hubs across England, supporting the aims of the National Consortium for Languages Education (NCLE) by allocating £400,000 for the promotion of German.
Yet, teachers lack both time and means to change the situation merely through another action plan. Teachers are overlooked when it comes to consultation about changes such as the new GCSE languages curriculum. They are depressed about having to put fulfilling the requirements of the curriculum and exam preparation over making languages interesting and varied for their pupils. At the recent German Network Meeting on ‘Cultural and Linguistic Diversity in German Language Teaching’, that’s to say how German - like any other language - is not one homogenous language, teachers made this clear once more.
As to pupils and students, Brexit has meant an increased burden for those wanting to spend time abroad. The end of Erasmus+ funding means that many prospective students will now wonder whether Modern Languages Studies with a compulsory year abroad is for them. But there is the Turing funding scheme, which is meant to be targeted at widening participation students, I hear you say. With higher costs associated with going to Europe – such as passports, visas, costs associated with translating documents and the need for blocked accounts – together with universities only able to make individual funding decisions in autumn, well after students have left these shores to go abroad, it is particularly the less well-off students who are hit and may have to decide not to go abroad. Sure, the fact that Turing offers funding to non-European countries is theoretically a benefit to many. That, however, does not make up for the overall financial stress students are under. And as we are going into a new recruitment round in the universities, we are unable to say anything about Government funding as Turing has only been planned up to 2024/25.
Visa and financial issues work the other way round, too. There has been a dramatic drop in language assistants, partly for financial reasons, and the fact that due to visa regulations it’s impossible for schools to get a student from an EU country for a few weeks to help with the preparation of oral exams for example all don’t help.
The decline in opportunities for school pupils to have native speakers of the languages they learn at school was already reported by the British Council three years ago, but nothing has changed for the better so far. Whilst pupils here are deprived of the opportunities that come with a language assistant or student, teacher education in EU countries also suffers. This is particularly true in Germany where many languages students are on teacher training programmes and would like to spend time in a school here. In the meantime, Ireland is getting ahead with second and third language education and regularly carries good stories involving learning Modern Languages.
What has not changed over the last few difficult years is teachers’ enthusiasm for their languages as the German Network Meeting demonstrated. It can only be hoped that the NCLE, together with its 19 Hub Schools (about three in each geographical area of England) can change the story.