Here are two articles regarding Britain’s foreign language problems: First is one from the London Times in which British Baroness Coussins criticizes the UK’s short-sightedness on foreign language preparation and warns of the problems that will follow if things are not changed. (Nicola Woolcock, “Britain Facing Humiliating Decline in Foreign Languages” Times online May 18, 2010). The second (also written by Nicola Woolcock May 15, 2010) is about the general crisis:
#1. Britain is sliding towards a “humiliating decline” in its contribution to world affairs because of dwindling foreign language teaching, an independent peer has told The Times.
Baroness Coussins, a Cambridge modern languages graduate, criticised Britain’s dismissive and short-sighted attitude to languages.
Language lessons were to become mandatory in primary schools next year but this was quietly dropped before the election. The number of teenagers taking language GCSEs has fallen by a third since 2004, when they became optional.
While all three parties have voiced their support for language tuition, Labour presided over dropping the compulsory element at 14 and the new coalition has not vowed to reverse this.Lady Coussins, who chairs the AllParty Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, said every pupil should learn languages until the age of 16, even if this was not at GCSE level.
- She added: “When I was appointed to the House of Lords in 2007, I decided to champion languages and set up the group. I was amazed there wasn’t one already.
“We don’t just need specialists[. . .] we need people with conversational ability, who can be police officers, hotel receptionists or London Transport workers. We need to get our act together for the 2012 Olympics.”
Lady Coussins has written parliamentary questions, to find out if the new Government plans to tackle the subject, which she will table at the State Opening of Parliament.
Labour’s efforts to entice children into choosing to study languages by switching from compulsory GCSEs to primary school classes have failed, experts say.
The number of teenagers taking a modern language has fallen by a third since that was scrapped as a GCSE requirement in 2004. Three quarters of schools no longer require pupils to take exams at 16 in French, German or Spanish.
Instead the focus changed to fostering a love of languages in primary school, so pupils would supposedly choose to study them at secondary level. But because the teaching of languages at primary school is patchy and variable, secondary teachers have to start from scratch at 11.
Researchers have told The Timesthat children who already know the language are repeating basic work, becoming bored and resentful, and dropping languages at 14 when they make GCSE choices.
They blame incoherence in language teaching, and claim that none of the main political parties will address the problem.
Universities suggest that the issue is starting to have an impact on their recruitment of state school pupils, and they are trying to address the situation with summer schools and language masterclasses.
Employers have also voiced concerns, and the trend has worrying implications for the future production of enough language teachers, who will be in increasing demand when teaching a foreign language becomes compulsory at primary school next year.
Academics say that British children are getting the worst deal in Europe.
Sylvia Jaworska, a lecturer in German at Queen Mary, University of London, said: “For foreign languages not to be obligatory is uniquely British. Every secondary school in Europe ensures that pupils study at least one foreign language up to 18 years old.
“Here in the UK, languages are viewed as difficult subjects. Worryingly, some secondary schools don’t push students to take them, because they think it might affect their league table results.”
This was echoed by the Sutton Trust, a charity that tackles educational inequality. Lee Elliot Major, its director of research and policy, said: “They [state schools] focus on English and maths and vocational subjects to get better results, but it’s not necessarily what’s best for children.”
Dr Jaworska’s students are working with a local primary school in East London to interest them in languages. She said that the number of German language teachers had decreased by 300 in the past five years. “If fewer modern foreign language GCSEs are taken, we worry that ultimately our student intake will drop,” she added. “Our hope is to encourage school pupils to take up languages and then, as graduates, to become language teachers.”
Some prestigious universities require candidates to have a language GCSE, no matter what degree they are taking. Others that are striving to widen participation to pupils from varied backgrounds say that the decline in languages at state schools could hamper this.
The independent schools sector accounted for 15 per cent of all A-level entries in 2008-09, but its pupils took 34 per cent of the modern foreign language exams, and made up almost half of those achieving an A grade.
Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group of leading universities, said: “Knowledge of modern foreign languages is vital to the UK. The Russell Group and the wider higher education sector have been affected in recent years by changes in demand for language degrees and courses, resulting in part from changes to language provision in the school sector.
“In particular, we are concerned about the relatively low proportion of students who take modern foreign languages at A level within the state school sector.”
The CBI has said that more than a third of British businesses hire people for their language skills, but that they are increasingly forced to recruit from overseas to meet this need.