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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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A Comment on Shrinking Foreign Language Offerings

More people should join the campaign against the foreign language decline.  Here’s one such advocate, Jennifer Crystle, who published the following article in pbk.org, July 17, 2012.  

It’s common to hear our world referred to as small. However, with a surface area of over 500 million square kilometers and a population of over 7 billion people, our planet is certainly not small. With technology advancing at a record pace and our economy becoming more globalized, the distance between cultures is dwindling down to the space between a person and their Skype camera.  As our world shrinks, a new importance must be granted to our ability to communicate in other languages.

Phi Beta Kappa recognizes and defends the importance of language study. However, many universities’ decisions to cut language programs suggest that there are various leaders in the field of higher education who do not share that view.  In 2008, the University of Southern California said auf wiedersehen to its German program due to low student enrollment, a diminishing faculty, and an administration that didn’t consider foreign language a priority. When students and faculty protested, USC stood by the decision to cut the German major, but kept a minor to stifle the dissent.

Some drew attention to the increasing importance of Asian languages in international affairs to justify USC’s sudden cut to the German program, but a quick glance at the headlines should quell any reservations about the value of studying German. In a CBC News article, “Germany Key To Resolving European Debt Crisis,” Daniel Schwartz argued that Germany has become a central force in world economic affairs. That was a year ago. Since then there is little media discussion of the debt crisis among European nations and the financial concerns of the EU that doesn’t place Germany in the most vital role. Why, then, are major universities agreeing to downsize German, the language spoken by the newest European powerhouse?

A closer look at economic policy and educational funding may provide some answers as to why language programs are suffering more than most other departments at American universities.

While President Obama’s overall budget proposal for the 2013 fiscal year features a 2.5 percent increase in Education Department spending, the Title XI program, which helps to support over 150 National Resource Centers (NRCs) dedicated to the study of less commonly taught languages, endured a 40 percent reduction of its funds. In his 2013 budget announcement back in February, Obama announced that Title XI will receive a small increase of $1.7 million. 

Not all universities are affected by Title XI, and, certainly, the decision to cut and condense language programs is ultimately their own. As quoted in Stan Katz’s blog post for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Wie Gehts, USC?,” it was USC’s Dean Howard Gillman who ruled to close the “stand-alone” German department. Despite his continued support of giving students a “global perspective,” in his memo to the faculty, he argued that the university’s best option would be to “integrate the field of study into a broader enterprise.”  

After learning of these cuts, I became curious about the history of language programs at my own university, The University of Mary Washington. As a small liberal arts college with just over 4,000 students, the Modern Foreign Languages department is not as large as USC’s; however, to my dismay, I learned that we, too, have experienced cuts to our language programs over the years. Associate Dean and Professor of Spanish Ana Chichester noted that the university’s decision to cut the Russian program in the 90s was seen by faculty as both “premature” and “short-sighted.” While Mary Washington has been able to hold on to the German major, Chichester acknowledged that “the German program has recently been cut to one tenured faculty despite the fact that we have close to two dozen majors in German.”

It would seem that large universities and small colleges alike are withdrawing support for traditional language programs. As it stands now, we have a backwards correlation concerning language study. As the distance between cultures decreases, we need to aspire to anincrease in college language offerings across the United States.
Jennifer Crystle is a senior at The University of Mary Washington majoring in English and Spanish. Mary Washington is home to the Kappa of Virginia chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.


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