Decline in Students Studying Foreign Languages in UK Universities

Here we go again — the UK has had problems with its students learning (or not learning) foreign languages in K-12 but now it’s the undergraduates who are encountering similar issues. What can be done? How can this decline be curbed?

Following article from The Telegraph, November 8, 2013:

A slump in the number of students studying foreign languages at university has been revealed, sparking fears over the UK’s ability to compete with other nations.

In total, 4,842 people were accepted on to UK degree courses to study the subjects in 2012 a drop of 14% on the year before.

The figures were cited by Steve Egan, interim chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) at the organisation’s annual meeting.

He said: ”One thing that everybody seems to raise with me is modern foreign languages. That’s seen a reduction of 14%. That’s not just to do with the tuition fee regime, it may be do with reforms that have happened in the school system, it may be to do with other factors.

”But there is an issue with modern foreign languages. To what extent do we think it’s right that our country should be producing 14% fewer graduates in modern foreign languages? Is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? Should we care? And if we care, what should we do about it?”

Statistics published by admissions service Ucas show that as of August 30, 3,980 people had been placed to study degrees related to European languages, compared with 4,050 at the same point last year and 4,580 in 2009.

Around 1,250 people had been placed to study subjects relating to non-European languages, compared with 1,220 last year and 1,460 in 2009.

Last year was the first year of the tuition fee hike, and fewer people applied to university overall.

The figures come amid concerns that some university language departments are being forced to close amid a lack of demand.

In the last decade there has been a steady decline in the number of pupils taking languages at GCSE, a fall that began soon after the last government abolished the requirement for teenagers to study a language to GCSE in 2002.

The coalition Government has brought in a new requirement for seven to 11-year-olds in England to be taught a language in primary schools and introduced the English Baccalaureate, which recognises students who gain at least a C at GCSE in English, maths, science, history or geography and a foreign language.

This summer, the slump in uptake of modern languages in schools halted, with an increase in the numbers of pupils taking GCSEs in languages such as French, German and Spanish.Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: ”If students are not studying relevant subjects in secondary education, they are unlikely to choose to follow these subjects into higher education.”

She added: ”There is clear evidence that graduates in these subjects make a substantial contribution to the economy, and that assuring provision in these areas is strongly in the national interest.”

John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council said: ”However much as an English-speaking nation we might want to avoid it, languages are vital for the UK’s future in the world.

”All the global trends mean we need many, many more students to learn – and get out and use – many more foreign languages. If that doesn’t happen, employers are consistently telling us they won’t have what they need – and this can only be bad news for the UK’s competitiveness and ability to connect with the world.”

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Do Different Languages Confer Different Personalities?

This is the question that a reporter for The Economist posed in the November 5, 2013, issue. Here’s his findings:

LAST week, Johnson took a look at some of the advantages of bilingualism. These include better performance at tasks involving “executive function” (which involve the brain’s ability to plan and prioritise), better defence against dementia in old age and—the obvious—the ability to speak a second language. One purported advantage was not mentioned, though. Many multilinguals report different personalities, or even different worldviews, when they speak their different languages.

It’s an exciting notion, the idea that one’s very self could be broadened by the mastery of two or more languages. In obvious ways (exposure to new friends, literature and so forth) the self really is broadened. Yet it is different to claim—as many people do—to have a different personality when using a different language. A former Economist colleague, for example, reported being ruder in Hebrew than in English. So what is going on here?

Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist who died in 1941, held that each language encodes a worldview that significantly influences its speakers. Often called “Whorfianism”, this idea has its sceptics, including The Economist, which hosted a debate on the subject in 2010. But there are still good reasons to believe language shapes thought.

This influence is not necessarily linked to the vocabulary or grammar of a second language. Significantly, most people are not symmetrically bilingual. Many have learned one language at home from parents, and another later in life, usually at school. So bilinguals usually have different strengths and weaknesses in their different languages—and they are not always best in their first language. For example, when tested in a foreign language, people are less likely to fall into a cognitive trap (answering a test question with an obvious-seeming but wrong answer) than when tested in their native language. In part this is because working in a second language slows down the thinking. No wonder people feel different when speaking them. And no wonder they feel looser, more spontaneous, perhaps more assertive or funnier or blunter, in the language they were reared in from childhood.

What of “crib” bilinguals, raised in two languages? Even they do not usually have perfectly symmetrical competence in their two languages. But even for a speaker whose two languages are very nearly the same in ability, there is another big reason that person will feel different in the two languages. This is because there is an important distinction between bilingualism and biculturalism.

Many bilinguals are not bicultural. But some are. And of those bicultural bilinguals, we should be little surprised that they feel different in their two languages. Experiments in psychology have shown the power of “priming”—small unnoticed factors that can affect behaviour in big ways. Asking people to tell a happy story, for example, will put them in a better mood. The choice between two languages is a huge prime. Speaking Spanish rather than English, for a bilingual and bicultural Puerto Rican in New York, might conjure feelings of family and home. Switching to English might prime the same person to think of school and work.

So there are two very good reasons (asymmetrical ability, and priming) that make people feel different speaking their different languages. We are still left with a third kind of argument, though. An economist recently interviewed here at Prospero, Athanasia Chalari, said for example that:

Greeks are very loud and they interrupt each other very often. The reason for that is the Greek grammar and syntax. When Greeks talk they begin their sentences with verbs and the form of the verb includes a lot of information so you already know what they are talking about after the first word and can interrupt more easily.

Is there something intrinsic to the Greek language that encourages Greeks to interrupt? Consider Johnson sceptical. People seem to enjoy telling tales about their languages’ inherent properties, and how they influence their speakers. A group of French intellectual worthies once proposed, rather self-flatteringly, that French be the sole legal language of the EU, because of its supposedly unmatchable rigour and precision. Some Germans believe that frequently putting the verb at the end of a sentence makes the language especially logical. But language myths are not always self-flattering: many speakers think their languages are unusually illogical or difficult—witness the plethora of books along the lines of “Only in English do you park on a driveway and drive on a parkway; English must be the craziest language in the world!” What such pop-Whorfian stories share is a (natural) tendency to exoticise languages. We also see some unsurprising overlap with national stereotypes and self-stereotypes: French, rigorous; German, logical; English, playful. Of course.

In this case, Ms Chalari, a scholar, at least proposed a specific and plausible line of causation from grammar to personality: in Greek, the verb comes first, and it carries a lot of information, hence easy interrupting. The problem is that many unrelated languages all around the world put the verb at the beginning of sentences. Many languages all around the world are heavily inflected, encoding lots of information in verbs. It would be a striking finding if all of these unrelated languages had speakers more prone to interrupting each other. Welsh, for example, is also both verb-first and about as heavily inflected as Greek, but the Welsh are not known as pushy conversationalists.

Neo-Whorfians continue to offer evidence and analysis that aims to prove that different languages push speakers to think differently. One such effort is forthcoming: “The Bilingual Mind” by Aneta Pavlenko, to be published in April. Ms Pavlenko speaks to François Grosjean here. Meanwhile, John McWhorter takes the opposite stance in “The Language Hoax”, forthcoming in February. We’ll return to this debate. But strong Whorfian arguments do not need to be valid for people to feel differently in their different languages.

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Fairfax County, Virginia, Looks to Axe Foreign Language Program

Yet again foreign language programs in a county’s public school system is looking to wield its budgetary axe — and the victim is — foreign languages! Haven’t school systems learned the importance of teaching young students another language?! Not only does it encourage them to be better ‘global citizens’ but it also stimulates their cognitive abilities. Isn’t it about time foreign languages stop being the whipping boy for budgetary cuts in school systems that fail to keep their house in order?!

Here’s the article by Kate Yanchulis for Fairfax Times, October 31, 2013:

Foreign language instruction at 46 elementary schools has been targeted as a possible budget cut by the county school system to help make up a projected $140 million budget deficit.

Sandy Knox has been through this before. In November 2009, a budget shortfall also put the Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools program at risk, but the work of passionate parents such as Knox ensured that its funding remained intact.

“It’s an exhausting effort,” Knox said. “And it’s a shame that this has to come up so regularly.”

Superintendent Karen Garza and the county School Board last week held the first of many discussions on next year’s budget, and eliminating FLES was just one of many possible cost-saving measures being evaluated. Garza estimated that more than $100 million in cuts would be needed.

Cutting the foreign language program would result in an estimated $5.5. million in savings, but also would impact students in one-third of the county’s elementary schools. Through FLES, students receive two to three 30-minute periods of language instruction per week. Of the 46 schools, 30 provide instruction in Spanish; the others teach either Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Italian or French. Six schools’ programs just started this year.

For Knox, advocating for this program is about more than just the importance of foreign language instruction, though she does believe that it benefits students.

“We really want to advocate for money for the schools,” Knox said. “Yes, we want to keep our programs, but it all comes down to getting money for the schools.”

Knox co-founded the group Fairfax FLAGS — Foreign Language Advocacy for Grade Schools — when FLES last was threatened by budget cuts in 2009. She had just fought to bring the program to Brookfield, her children’s school, the previous year, and she did not want to see it disappear.

She organized a group of FLES parents and banded together with parents whose children participated in the county’s foreign language immersion programs, which then also were at risk. At its height, the Fairfax FLAGS online mailing list reached 3,000 parents, and the group helped save both programs from the chopping block.

“We feel like these things are what make Fairfax County schools unique and better than other school districts,” Knox said.

However, in the years since then, as FLES has remained safe and even expanded, Fairfax FLAGS dropped off. It still has an active Facebook group, but its website went offline and many parents moved on to other issues.

Now, with news of the budget deficit possibly endangering the program, parents have started contacting Knox and Fairfax FLAGS again, and the organization is working to get its website and numbers back up.

School Board member Ryan McElveen (At-large) wants parents to know that despite the cost-crunching situation it faces, the board still is dedicated to foreign language learning. The board has formed a working group focused on internationalization efforts in schools, and one of its main priorities is to investigate how FLES could be restructured and improved.

“Parents need to know, we still do view it as an important part of our curriculum,” said Ryan McElveen, School Board member (At-large). “In some counties in the country, that program would be the first thing to go. But I don’t think that’s who we are in Fairfax County.”

Still, the threat to the program remains, and Knox worries that Fairfax FLAGS will not be able to muster as much energy as it once did.

“It’s really an exhausting effort,” she said. “I think parents just get tired of having to fight this battle.”

With her youngest child now in sixth grade and moving out of the elementary school program, she has started looking for FLES parents to take her place as a leader in advocating for the program.

“I’ve done this for six years, and I don’t have the energy for it anymore,” Knox said. “It’s not that I don’t care, but we need to have new faces and new energy.”

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Foreign Languages in Kindergarten

Nanci Hutson in ctpost.com, August 31, 2013:

In the first week of school, Schools Superintendent Anthony Bivona went back to kindergarten and first grade.

And he learned a couple new words — in Spanish.

For the first year, Center Elementary’s 500 or so kindergarten and first-graders are learning a foreign language.

Brookfield hired Mikki Durkin as its first early language teacher, and her schedule is to teach each class three times a week for a 15-minute period. Bivona said he was impressed with Durkin’s enthusiasm and ability to grasp the children’s attention right away.

“What I witnessed was an introductory lesson of greetings to students — “hola” and “buenos dias” — and I saw how excited they were. Just the excitement in the classes and the expressions on their faces was amazing to watch,” Bivona said.

Brookfield is one of the few traditional public school districts in the Western Connecticut region to expand world languages to the kindergarten level. It is one of 10 in the state.

First-grader Sienna Katz, the youngest daughter of multilingual school board member Victor Katz, came home from her first day at Center able to speak seven different words, including her name. On the second day, she came home singing a song in Spanish.

“At that age, they absorb it like a sponge,” said Katz, who emigrated to the United States from the Ukraine in 1992 and works as a software engineer for an international company, where he is called upon to speak a variety of languages.

An outspoken advocate for expanding the district’s foreign language program, Katz said the benefit is unquestionable, with many studies showing proof that academic performance of children is advanced by early language learning.

The National Network of Early Language Learning suggests that all elementary school students have access to high quality world language instruction because it is the best time to learn.

Acquiring those early literacy and cognitive skills helps youngsters with standardized tests, teaches them positive attitudes toward different cultures and makes it easier to acquire broader language skills later in life, the network says.

Brookfield’s strategic plan as far back as 2005 identified the need to expand world language opportunities, and two years ago the district widened its offerings from starting at seventh grade to fifth grade.

In 2012, Brookfield’s school board hired Glastonbury Director of Foreign Languages Rita Oleksak. For decades, Glastonbury has had a model world language program including. She urged Brookfield administrators to expand elementary Spanish to kindergarten, introduce Mandarin Chinese in seventh grade and establish multimedia language labs.

“Learning a foreign language is an integral component to educating 21st century citizens to become productive members of our global society,” Oleksak wrote in a letter to the district. “Their study of a foreign language develops language and communication skills, cultural knowledge as well as critical 21st century skills that students need to be successful in the future.”

As a child growing up in a multi-language family, Katz said he often started a sentence in one language only to then finish in another.

“The brain gets wired in a different way,” Katz said of children who learn languages at an early age.

Not a luxury

For the last eight years in Danbury, students from across the region have attended the kindergarten through fifth-grade Western Connecticut Academy for International Studies’ magnet school, where the study of world cultures included teaching Spanish in kindergarten.

“It’s so exciting that they (Brookfield educators) are putting that into the program,” said Helena Nitowski, the academy’s tri-lingual principal.

Nitowski said her school has offered the early elementary language program since it opened as part of a broader theme of international and global studies.

“The understanding of customs and cultures is more exhilarated when you can speak the language,” Nitowski said.

Bivona is quick to say his administration’s push to broaden and expand the world language program is rooted in the reality of the 21st century as a global society. And he praises the community for backing the program financially.

Although the $150,000 to add Mandarin Chinese as a third language at the middle and high school levels was not funded, Bivona said the commitment to an expanded world language program is a priority for the school district. So the approximately $100,000 to extend world language to kindergarten and first-grade was approved.

In the coming budget season, Bivona said, he will seek the money needed to complete the elementary sequence to second, third and fourth grades. He, too, will again be pitching Mandarin Chinese, a world language that many high schools across the state and nation consider essential for a full-fledged languages program.

“The community is aware of the importance of having a global perspective in education, and how linked we are with other cultures,” Bivona said.

No longer do Americans only do business within the boundaries of their home communities or nation, he noted.

“We are working internationally, and companies and businesses are looking for people who are bilingual … communication is key to education,” he said.

Bivona said a robust world language curriculum is not just a luxury.

“I can’t place enough emphasis on the fact that we’re living in a global society. Our students need to learn the traditions and customs and broaden our perspective beyond the borders of Brookfield. To me, that is really important. I cannot stress that enough,” he said.

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Clarion University To Eliminate French and German Language Programs

Thanks to Dr. Robert Peckham for the following information. Please read and sign petition:

In the wake of a deficit, Clarion University of Pennsylvania is completely eliminating French and German. There is an online petition in favor of keeping them and music education:

http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/demand-clarion-university.fb29?source=s.fb&r_by=8592484

Please show your support and sign.

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Foreign Language Uptick in UK

Richard Garner in The Independent, August 22, 2013:

A major increase in the take-up of modern foreign languages – the first for more than a decade – is being heralded as the brightest spot on the horizon in this year’s GCSE results.

Figures showed French, Spanish and German had all registered an increase – French up 15.5 per cent to 177,000, Spanish up 25.8 per cent to 91,000 and German up 9.4 per cent to 63,000.

The take-up of minority languages also rose by 5.1 per cent with the most popular being Italian with 5,136, urdu with 4,519 and Polish 3,933. Others increasing in popularity include Arabic (3,607) and Chinese (3,042).

The increase – after languages have been in virtual free-fall since Labour decided they should no longer be compulsory for 14 to 16-year-olds a decade ago – is being put down to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s introduction of the English Baccalaureate ranking in exam leagues.

Whilst English, maths, science and the humanities – history or geography – had survived better in the face of the move away from traditional academic subjects in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, scores of language teachers were sacked from secondary schools as the take-up of the subject plummeted.

“This year’s upturn in languages will be welcomed across the education sector and beyond,” said Michael Turner, director at the Joint Council for Qualifications – the umbrella body representing exam boards. “Not since 2008 have there been this many entries.

“However, it remains to be seen if this is the start of a trend and if students continue to study a language at A-level.”

Last week’s A-level results revealed a depressingly familiar picture of a further decline in take-up – with a 9.9per cent fall in the take up of French and 11.1 per cent drop in German only minimally offset by a 4.1 per cent rise in Spanish.

The rise in numbers studying the subject led to a drop in the percentage of pupils gaining A* to C grades in the subject – with French down from 66.2 per cent to 63.9 per cent, German from 43.3 per cent to 42.1 per cent and Spanish from 66.8 per cent to 66.2 per cent. However, exam boards explained this by saying that the rise had attracted a broader range of candidates to study the exam.

Katja Hall, chief policy director at the CBI, said: “It’s good to see the big rise in language entrants but the accelerating drop-off at A-level shows there is a huge amount of ground to claw back since compulsory GCSEs were scrapped.

“It is better late than never to make languages mandatory at primary school (the will be compulsory for seven-year-olds) but it will be years before we can reap the rewards fully.”

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss said: “Today’s results show the EBacc has not just arrested the decline in the study of academic subjects at GCSE – it is reversing it.

“I am particularly delighted to see a languages revival – with an increase in the number of entries to French, German and Spanish GCSEs after years of decline.”

Kathryn James, director of policy at the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “The slight fall in top grades was to be anticipated given the wider ability range now taking these subjects.”

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Number of A-Level Students Studying Foreign Languages on the Decline

Rebecca Ratcliffe in The Guardian, August 15, 2013:

Drop in number of A-level students studying foreign languages

Exam boards to launch inquiry as students shun French and German for sciences and economics

Spanish and French dictionaries
Entries to French A-levels fell by almost 10%, although Spanish bucked the trend, with a 4% increase. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

A major inquiry is under way after the number of teenagers taking traditional modern foreign languages at A-level fell to its lowest level for more than a decade.

Examination results released on Thursday show students are shunning French and German for the sciences and economics, triggering concern from the three main exam boards.

Entries to German were down 11.13% compared with last year, while French fell by 9.9%. Spanish was the only language to buck the trend, with a 4.08% increase.

Andrew Hall, chief executive of AQA, one of the biggest exam boards, said the boards would research why languages were so unpopular – and why comparatively few A-level language students achieve the top grades.

Some 6.9% of students sitting French, German and Spanish achieved an A* compared with 8.4% of those sitting physics, chemistry and biology.

“When we saw that languages were down again, we sat down and said we need to move this away from anecdote to evidence to find out what’s happening here,” Hall said. “We can’t sort how languages are taught in schools. What we can do is provide information to others to find out how the education system can be improved. We hope that teachers will get involved and we’re keen to talk to government about our findings.”

He questioned why the proportion of language entries getting A* was so small. “Is there something in the design of the qualification? We don’t believe so, but researching and challenging ourselves is important.”

Ofqual announced last week that it would investigate variations in the number of top grades awarded to sixth formers, citing French, German and Spanish as examples.

Professor Michael Kelly, head of languages at Southampton University and director of the Routes into Languages programme, said the slump in entries was partly a knock-on effect caused by a drop in GCSE entries for languages, but added: “There is a worry about language A-levels being unpredictable and being marked too harshly.

“Teachers find it very hard to estimate what a student will get in their exams, and there’s a danger that these students – especially high achievers – are being rerouted into subjects where they’re likely to do much better.”

Kelly also put the decline in French and German down to a growing interest in a broader range of subjects including Spanish, Russian and Arabic.

The number of students sitting economics exams this summer shot up by 7.45%, while chemistry, further mathematics and physics also experienced a boost in entries of more than three percentage points.

Lesley Davies, director of quality and standards at the Pearson exam board, said teenagers had responded to the need for more scientists and mathematicians.

“Eighteen-year-olds today were 11 at the time of the economic downturn, they’ve lived through all the issues that we’ve faced in the UK, and globally, over recent years. Young people have answered the rallying call of universities and employers and have made choices that will help their future careers.”

Boys fuelled an increase in the number of students studying the sciences, which accounted for 17.8% of all subjects taken this year, compared with 17.0% in 2012.

In physics, boys made up 79.3% of entries – an increase of 3.8% this year. Entries for girls taking physics fell by 0.2%.

Boys’ entries for English A-level fell by 2.3%, while entries from girls for the subject rose by 0.6%.

Commenting on the gender gap, Hall said: “Clearly there are very strong differences in A-level trends which existed over time, but we’ve noticed a widening of the gap this year – why, we don’t know, but the supply of teachers will be very important in determining this in the future.

“It’s about improving the information and guidance that’s being given to people at 16, which is a very early age to be making these decisions.”

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said teachers were “very aware” of the need to break gender stereotypes.

“We’ve seen very good examples of female engineers who go and talk to young people and explain that physics isn’t just a boy’s subject.”

Other subjects suffering a slump in interest were physical education (-14.53%), design and technology (-8.54%) and drama (8.42%).

Pressure on school budgets means fewer students are sitting extra qualifications such as critical thinking (-11.37%) and general studies (-11.24%), said Davies.

“We mustn’t forget the environment we’re in – resources are tightening and where as before students might have done four or five A-levels, now those extra classes are being dropped.”

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