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Why don’t pupils want to study languages in the UK?

11 April 2019 (AHRC)

After a BBC report showed drops of up to 50% in the take-up of GCSE language courses since 2013, researchers from the AHRC-funded Open World Research Initiative Creative Multilingualism project ask: Why don’t pupils want to study languages and what can we do about it?

Professor Suzanne Graham and Dr Linda Fisher are researchers on Creative Multilingualism’s 7th strand, Language Learning, which is investigating the impact of using creative teaching materials and methodologies on pupils’ motivation and achievement.

Evidence showing that language learning is at an all-time low in UK secondary schools continues to mount up. Last month, having surveyed more than 2000 secondary schools, the BBC reported that in some areas in England entries to German and French exams have fallen by as much as 30 to 50% since 2013. The pattern is similar in all four UK countries: in Wales entries are down 29%, in Northern Ireland it’s 40%, with Scotland reporting a 19% fall for its equivalent qualifications. Rises in entries for Spanish and Mandarin, while welcome, are not enough to offset the overall drop in numbers.

Not only are fewer pupils choosing to study a language, but languages departments across the regions are limiting the range of languages they offer, mainly because if they haven’t got the uptake they can’t afford the staffing. Naturally, the impact of this continuing decline in numbers is likely to be felt further up the education chain, as even fewer budding linguists come forward to complete A-levels and languages degrees.

This gloomy picture of pupils rejecting languages as soon as they have the chance shores up the narrative that the British don’t or can’t do languages. In a 2015 British Council survey 62% of Britons said they can’t speak any other language apart from English.

It is important to recognise, however, that this narrative of deficit and deficiency is not a phenomenon solely located in the UK, but rather is an Anglophone world problem. 

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