Thursday, 10 March 2016

Ithaka Prize Finalist: Why We Should All Learn A Foreign Language

by Katherine Lemieux

„Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen“
He who knows no foreign language, knows nothing of his own

A 21st century manifesto for Modern Languages in the United Kingdom

In England gibt es eine Fremdsprachenkrise, weil immer weniger Studenten Fremdsprachen studieren und leider wird es erwartet, dass dieser Trend in der Zukunft fortfahren wird. Im Vergleich zu Deutschland, wo 64% der Bevölkerung Englisch sprechen kann[1], kann nur ungefähr 5% der britischen Bevölkerung Deutsch sprechen[2] und das macht mir Sorgen. Fremdsprachen sind sehr nützlich, besonders in dem globalen Arbeitsmarkt, und deshalb habe ich mich entschieden herauszufinden, warum es ein Mangel an Fremdsprachenkenntnisse in Großbritannien gibt, und wie man diese Situation verbessern kann. Es ist sehr wichtig, dass wir zusammen arbeiten, um alle zu ermutigen, Fremdsprachen zu lernen, weil es uns künftig helfen wird. Ich hoffe, dass eines Tages die Mehrheit der Briten diesen Absatz verstehen wird. Das wäre fantastisch.

En Angleterre il y a une crise de langues vivantes parce que le nombre d’étudiants qui apprend les langues vivantes diminue et malheureusement on craint que cette tendance ne continue à l’avenir.  En comparaison de la France, où au moins 39% de la population sait parler l’anglais,[3] seulement 15% des Britanniques  ont des connaissances de français[4] et cela m’inquiète.  Les langues vivantes sont très utiles, surtout sur  le marché du travail mondial et par conséquent j’ai décidé d’examiner cette crise. J’ai pour but de découvrir la cause de ce manque de connaissance de langues étrangères en Grande-Bretagne  et comment améliorer cette situation. Il est important de travailler ensemble pour que tous soient inspirés d’apprendre les langues vivantes, qui nous aideront à l’avenir. J’espère qu’un jour la plupart des Britanniques comprendront ce paragraphe. Cela serait fantastique.

If you find that you can read and understand either of the two paragraphs above, the chance is that you appreciate the value of learning a foreign language. In a world where the desire for linguists is so great, the words of the German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, could not be any more relevant or important. Britain is facing a foreign languages crisis with only one quarter of British adults having the ability to hold a conversation in a foreign language.[5] Personally, I find the study of modern foreign languages fascinating as not only do you gain the ability to communicate in a foreign language, but you also benefit from wider knowledge, such as the cultural backdrop associated with that specific language. I find it a great shame that so few people are choosing to study languages and so I have therefore decided to take on the challenge of highlighting in this project, using a wide variety of sources and my own fieldwork via a survey, the severity of this languages crisis and perhaps even more crucially the possible solutions, which include offering language courses alongside degrees at university, exploring creative teaching methods and making foreign languages relevant to today’s world.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the study of modern foreign languages in Britain is declining rapidly. Fewer and fewer pupils are opting to study foreign languages and worryingly this trend is expected to continue. According to Speak to the Future, a campaign for languages backed by the British Council, GCSE entries for German have dropped by 43% over the past 10 years and French has also seen a 38% decline in its entries.[6] The Joint Council for Qualifications reports a similar story for A Levels, with a 65% drop in French entries between 1993 and 2015 and a drop of 67% for German entries.[7] This crisis has led to fears that certain languages may even become extinct from the curriculum in British schools and colleges, which has most recently led to promises from Nicky Morgan, Education Secretary, that the government will "guarantee the future" of GCSEs and A-levels in minority languages such as Polish, Gujarati, Bengali and Turkish.[8] However, it still remains questionable whether these words will suffice.

In stark contrast, entries for subjects referred to by schools minister, Nick Gibb, as “core academic subjects” (which includes science and maths) have seen a rise in entries in recent years, including an increase of 20% in entries for maths since 2010.[9] Sadly for humanities subjects, the current climate and funding arrangements have been more favourable to these more ‘logical’ STEM subjects, in particular science and maths, as it is widely believed that these areas of education are the most important for the future. This stance was most notably seen in UKIP’s 2015 manifesto where they proposed only “waiv[ing] tuition fees for science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine at university”.[10] In my opinion, this clearly shows an unjust bias which would discourage people from taking humanities subjects (including languages) to university level. To highlight just how serious this problem is, there were only 79,860 entrants for language degrees in comparison to 635,265 [46% of total entries] for science based degrees in 2013-2014.[11]  I fully appreciate the crucial importance of both science and maths and their contribution to society and the wider economy, but there is clear evidence that they are unfairly over-shadowing subjects that deserve to be just as highly regarded, in particular modern foreign languages.

Whilst willing to admit that learning a language is hard and takes a lot of time and commitment, I fully agree with the British Council, describing the numbers taking languages at A Level in 2015 as “disappointingly low”[12]. The consequence is that even fewer people are then continuing with a language into higher education, in turn leading to some universities having to decrease the size of their language departments, or sadly even close the faculty altogether. According to the Guardian, the number of universities offering degrees in modern foreign languages has already plunged from 105 in 2000 to 62 at the start of this academic year, and as many as 40% are likely to close within the next decade.[13]
There are numerous explanations for this decline, which combined together, give a clearer picture for the reasons behind this crisis.  Steve Smith, a retired French teacher and online blogger, highlights the concern that many people believe taking modern foreign languages is a riskier pathway  than that of other subjects as there are suggestions that it is harder to obtain an A* at A Level than in other subjects.[14] Recent statistics published by JCQ confirm this theory, as only 8.1% of French and 8.3% of German students achieved an A* at A Level in 2015 in contrast to 18% of maths students.[15] This has led to suggestions that language courses should be made more practical, with a greater focus on skills of communication that can be put into use when abroad, instead of focusing on the teaching the study of culture, literature and formal translation.

Another problem mentioned in the Times Educational Supplement, a weekly UK publication aimed primarily at school teachers in the UK, was the Labour government’s decision in 2004 to remove the requirement for secondary schools to provide language learning for all up to the age of sixteen, resulting in “a massive drop in take up of languages at GCSE” and an “exodus of language teachers” from the profession.[16] For some people, the challenge of learning a language is insurmountable, but there is a possibility that by removing the compulsory study of a language, the importance of language learning may have been down-graded in some people’s eyes. In an attempt to increase overall public engagement, the Labour government did however create a new set of qualifications to support the delivery of languages across a wide range of contexts. This led to OCR creating ‘Asset Languages’ which according to a journal article published by the British Council provided “materials that [were] appropriate for the MFL context in the UK”, from primary education to undergraduate study in “at least 26 languages”. [17] Unfortunately, due to funding cuts, OCR was forced to serve notice on these qualifications in 2012 and since then no alternatives have been introduced. If anything the situation has been made worse by the government refusing to acknowledge vocational courses on league tables. This means that since January 2014 according to the Department for Education[18] "only the highest quality qualifications" have been included in the tables, which has resulted in useful and practical language courses, such as ‘Mandarin for business’ or ‘French for cabin crews’, no longer being offered.

The ASCL head teachers’ union linked the decline in the popularity of some subjects, like German, to budget pressures which make it difficult to sustain subjects with smaller numbers of pupils.[19] Funding reductions for education are unfortunately only expected to get worse, with George Osborne announcing a further £9 million of cuts for the Department of Education and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in the 2015-16 financial year.[20] This will force schools and colleges to cut subjects that are not popular enough, thus denying some students the opportunity to study their desired course. In the city of Portsmouth, very few of the state-funded secondary schools offer German as a GCSE language and no school allows the students to study two foreign languages within the school day. This is directly due to budget cuts and, rather unfairly, limits students’ choices regarding their languages education.

Intrigued to discover first-hand the reasons behind these declining trends, I decided to conduct my own independent survey to gain some insight into people’s opinions regarding foreign languages.[21] I surveyed 100 people anonymously across all age categories to find out their views. It was pleasing to discover that 78% of those surveyed did value the importance of languages, and interestingly those in the older age categories, such as the 40-59 category, often commented more reflectively on how languages “expand your knowledge of the world” and help you “to learn so much about other cultures”. This was in contrast to the 17-24 category, where the response to languages was much more mixed. There were some positive response such as “in a multi-cultural world which is growing more and more interlinked it makes things easier and also shows respect to the people of that country”, but also  other more negative comments like  “it’s not necessary” and the “majority of people can speak English [so it] doesn't really put me at a disadvantage”. The evidence therefore suggests that as one grows older, one becomes more aware of the importance of learning a language and the benefits it brings, whereas young adults appeared in general more focused on  how the “reward for the level of difficulty [and] work was not high enough” and how languages were “not useful towards career goals”. It would seem that young adults are more focused on the immediate future and securing employment, as opposed to the more rounded outlook of the world seen in the older age categories.  

One of the most prominent themes I picked up on in my survey was the vital role teachers play in encouraging pupils to study modern foreign languages, with some negative comments being made such as “[my] teachers [did not] appear enthusiast[ic] about the language”. Considering 52% of respondents believed one of the best ways to learn a language is by attending classes, the quality of teaching is undoubtedly important. Although I do not on any account believe the responsibility for the current foreign languages crisis should be blamed on the teachers, this raises the serious issue of the teaching quality of language lessons in the UK, especially as 56% of those surveyed agreed languages were difficult to learn.

Fewer and fewer people are opting to become teachers, shown by a 14% decrease in people enrolling on teacher training courses,[22] which has, according to the NUT, led to a “crisis in teacher recruitment  [which] means... more and more pupils are being taught by teachers who do not have a relevant qualification in the subject.”[23] With teaching vacancies having increased by one third during 2014-15[24], this has impacted negatively on the quality of teaching and the delivery of effective lessons. For example, Tanya Riordan, a Senior Lecturer at Portsmouth University and the Course Leader for the Postgraduate Certificate in Education for Modern Foreign Languages, commented in response to an email enquiry that she is now having to look to the rest of Europe to fill places, and currently recruits from France, Spain, Italy and Germany for language graduates who want to teach in England[25]. Whilst this is a laudable initiative and helps to provide language teachers for the future, it can cause additional problems of a cultural nature which training institutions and schools will need to take into consideration.

One of the flaws in recruiting a disproportionate number of foreign language graduates from abroad is the cultural difference between education systems. This has recently been demonstrated in the BBC documentary “Are Our Kids Tough Enough?”, where five Chinese teachers took on the challenge of teaching fifty British students at Bohunt School in Liphook using traditional Chinese methods for an experimental period of four weeks. At first the Chinese teachers struggled to control the class. Yang Jun, a science teacher from Xi’an, explained this was because “in China [there is no] need [for] classroom management skills because everyone is disciplined by nature, by families, by society.”[26] However, as time went on the British children realised that there was no alternative to these strict, lecture-based lessons, and once they began to accept the teaching methods they were able to progress with their learning. In reality though, British students may not be so accommodating to such a didactic style of teaching. Consequently language graduates from abroad training as teachers in the UK may well struggle to deliver lessons that are culturally familiar for the students. This is, of course, not always the case and foreign language teachers from outside the UK bring with them a whole wealth of cultural knowledge and experience, and should be given the help and support they need to adjust to these cultural differences.

The impact of this decline is severe and in future years could result in Britain’s role on the world stage declining. To highlight the extent of this problem, the Foreign Office has had to create its own languages school, costing £1 million a year, in order to train up the diplomatic service[27] and, according to research by Professor James Foreman-Peck for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, deficient language skills are costing the UK economy around £48 billion a year.[28] A survey carried out in 2014 by the CBI further emphasised the desire for linguists; 65% of firms surveyed identifying a need for language skills, with French, German and Spanish being rated as especially useful due to the EU being the largest export market.[29]

Knowledge of foreign languages is not only beneficial for Britain’s economy, but it also positions one better in a global highly-competitive job market. There is often the misconception that a degree in languages only leads to work as a translator or interpreter, or in more traditional roles such as teaching, but in reality language degrees can lead to almost any career, as shown in an article from the Guardian about language graduates working for firms such as Barclays and working overseas as international aid workers.[30] A languages degree gives much flexibility concerning career paths, and language graduates are highly attractive to future employers.  Findings from a poll of 500 employers, commissioned by the National Centre for Languages, found that “languages came second only to IT in a list of desirable skills for job candidates”.[31] In addition, the fact that “the mean salary of language graduates three years after finishing university is ahead of that of graduates of engineering, maths, physics and astronomy, and chemistry”, [32] gives further incentive to undertake a languages degree. Furthermore, data obtained from the Cambridge University Careers Service shows over 1700 employers contacted the university directly, specifically looking for graduates with language skills, with 784 employers wanting graduates who could speak German, and 717 employers seeking graduates with French.[33]

With such aspiring and positive career prospects, it is important that solutions are found to encourage students to continue studying languages, especially as learning a language was ranked third on a list of the top 10 skills people would love to learn, when asked at the Festival of Learning in 2015.[34] One solution is for universities to offer language courses alongside other degrees, especially as research carried out by the CBI found that 74% of employers recruit applicants with conversational ability, not those who are word perfect.[35] Southampton University has already implemented this idea and now offers the ‘Southampton Language Opportunity’ allowing students to study a language free of charge alongside their degree programme.[36] This is an excellent strategy which provides the chance to learn or continue a language in a more relaxed setting with no exam pressures, while significantly boosting your employability. 

Primary education is the ideal time to begin the study of a foreign language, for young children are curious and adaptable. Government plans introduced in September 2014, making the learning of a foreign language compulsory from the age of seven[37], are a promising start in helping Britain’s population catch up with its European neighbours, where 54% can converse in an additional language, in stark contrast to just 38% in the UK.[38] However, this initiative brings its challenges too. Dan Harding, headteacher of Stockton Heath Primary School, voices the concerns of many head teachers, explaining that it will be a huge challenge for many schools to recruit enough language specialists[39]. This highlights once again the need to encourage language graduates in particular to consider a career in teaching, so that high-quality lessons can be delivered at this crucial stage in a child’s development. It is also worth noting that young children in other European countries are exposed on a daily basis to English, be it through music, films and TV shows. This subconscious immersion in a foreign language, so absent in British life, plays a key role in training young minds to understand English language and culture. It may be worth persuading radio stations to broadcast foreign music, and also encouraging cinemas and TV stations to add more foreign language films and TV programmes in their original language to their repertoires.

One big problem that needs to be overcome is the lack of confidence shown by British citizens when it comes to speaking a foreign language abroad. A survey carried out by the British Council showed that 40% of UK adults were embarrassed by their language skills, and shockingly over one third “relied on the assumption that everyone would speak English in the country they [were] visiting [on holiday]”.[40] Dr Amanda Barton, Lecturer in Education at the University of Manchester, has suggested some simple methods to boost students’ confidence and engagement in the classroom. These include incorporating the register into the lesson by asking children to answer specific and relevant questions in the target language when their name is read aloud[41], and through games such as ‘cops and robbers’ which requires pupils to communicate in the target language in order to find the thieves.[42] By using creative ideas to add a sense of fun, students enjoy participating in the lessons and are less likely to be daunted by the prospect of speaking a foreign language. Social and emotional barriers are also broken down and the students will be more focused on achieving the goal of the game.    

The late Barry Jones, an innovative language teacher and educator and former President of the Association for Language Learning, devoted much of his time to devising and sharing more creative strategies to use in the languages classroom.  His suggestions included garbology, where pupils had to discover characters and the story by looking through the contents of a dustbin[43], and he also pioneered the idea of schools throughout Europe sending one another shoeboxes of materials (tourist souvenirs, texts, photographs, recipes, brochures, badges) that classes had collected and which they felt were somehow representative of their home culture in order to gain an awareness of cultural differences.[44] However, due to the pressures of demonstrating pupil progress and of exam results, it is often challenging for teachers to incorporate these more creative ideas in their lessons, as they feel they need to be focused on helping their students pass their exams, rather than developing their wider horizons and cultural awareness. This is a great pity if we want children to be inspired to learn languages and reach out into the wider world. In the words of E.M Forster “spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon”.[45]  
Another common complaint widely heard about foreign language lessons is that the content is not relevant to today’s world, as, for example, the ability to describe your daily routine is not going to help you when checking in to a hotel abroad. It is therefore important that language lessons are adjusted to be relevant to everyday life, although without mastering basic vocabulary and grammar taught at secondary level it is difficult to progress with a language. One technique I have personally enjoyed is reading and watching news stories in my target languages, as it not only widens my vocabulary but also my awareness of the world around me. This type of learning may not be to the taste of all students, so I have one final strategy that may bring language learning alive for you. The idea, created by Memrise, is an app, called CatAcademy, which shows photos of cats (and dogs) in humorous poses and displays a corresponding phrase in Spanish[46]. According to Ed Cooke, memory expert and co-founder of Memrise, "we learn through interesting imagery [and] you use your imagination in a powerful fashion”.[47] Italian, French, Portuguese and German are planned to be added in the future and a total of 1,000 phrases can be learned with the tool, resulting in 2,000-3,000 words being added to your brain. This new and exciting development could change the way people learn languages and help children and adults alike to memorize words and phrases in a less traditional and more stimulating fashion.

Although nobody knows what the future holds, the evidence is clear that in a world focused on international relations, foreign languages are essential. In this report I have helped to highlight the severity of the modern foreign language crisis in the UK and I could easily continue to quote data, statistics and personal experiences, but really we need to start acting and change Britain’s approach to foreign languages. We need to push ourselves more and gain confidence in our language skills by embracing some of the creative approaches, both old and new, that will inspire and engage us to learn foreign languages.  Why are we choosing to stand still allowing other countries to take the upper hand? Despite our modern society and all its technology, we are rapidly falling behind other countries when it comes to the knowledge of foreign languages and culture, and so now is the time to prepare for our country’s future as a convincing competitor in the global market. I am ready for this challenge, are you?

[1] Wikipedia. 2015. List of countries by English-speaking population. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 25 August 15].
[2] The Telegraph. 2013. Three-quarters of adults 'cannot speak a foreign language'. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 13 August 15].
[3] French Together. 2014. French people never speak English. Or do they?. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 25 August 15].
[4] The Telegraph. 2013. Three-quarters of adults 'cannot speak a foreign language'. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 13 August 15].
[5] The Telegraph. 2013. Three-quarters of adults 'cannot speak a foreign language'. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 13 August 15].
[6] Speak to the Future. 2014. What is happening to languages at GCSE?. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 13 August 15]
[7] Joint Council for General Qualifications . 2015. Student Performance Analysis . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 13 August 15].
[8] BBC News. 2015. Morgan tells exam boards to protect Polish A-levels. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 13 August 15].
[9] BBC News. 2015. A-levels: Top grades down, but more university places. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 13 August 15].
[10] UKIP. 2015. UKIP 2015 Election Manifesto launch, read a clear summary of the full document. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 August 15].
[11] Higher Education Statistics Agency. 2015. Free Online Statistics - Students & qualifiers (Table 4). [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 August 15].
[12] BBC News. 2015. A-levels: Top grades down, but more university places. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 13 August 15].
[13]The Guardian. 2013. Language teaching crisis as 40% of university departments face closure . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 August 15].
[14] Steve Smith. 2015. Where did all the A-level linguists go?. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 August 15].
[15] Joint Council for General Qualifications . 2015. Student Performance Analysis . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 August 15].
[16] TES. 2015. Exam board chief: 'Unless we act soon, even GCSE French and German could face the chop'. [ONLINE] Available at:,3DPEK,HS35H3,C3BXB,1. [Accessed 14 August 15].
[17] N Jones, K Ashton, AS-Y Chen, 2005. Rising to the challenge of asset languages. Cambridge ESOL: Research Notes, [Online]. 19, 2-4. Available at:[Accessed 14 August 2015].
[18] BBC News. 2011. Many vocational courses axed from league tables. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 August 15].
[19] BBC News. 2015. A-levels: Top grades down, but more university places. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 13 August 15].
[20] TES. 2015. George Osborne announces fresh cuts to education budgets. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 August 15].
[21] See Appendix A
[22] GOV.UK. 2014. Initial teacher training: trainee number census - 2014 to 2015. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 15 August 15].
[23] NUT. 2015. Teacher Recruitment and Retention. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 15 August 15].
[24] GOV.UK. 2015. School workforce in England: November 2014. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 15 August 15].
[25] See Appendix B
[26] The Telegraph. 2015. When Chinese-style education system meets British teens. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 15 August 15].
[27] The Guardian. 2013. Language teaching crisis as 40% of university departments face closure. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 15 August 15].
[28] The Guardian. 2013. Language skills deficit costs the UK £48bn a year. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 15 August 15].
[29] CBI. 2014. More firms demanding language skills to break into new markets - CBI/Pearson survey. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 15 August 15].
[30] The Guardian. 2013. Language graduates: what jobs are they doing now?. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 15 August 15].
[31] Personnel Today. 2010. Foreign language skills make jobseekers more employable during recession. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 15 August 15].
[32] Personnel Today. 2010. Foreign language skills make jobseekers more employable during recession. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 15 August 15].
[33] Data obtained from the Cambridge University Careers Service
[34] ALL. 2015. UK is a nation of 'wannabe' chefs, musicians and linguists. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 August 15].
[35] The Guardian. 2012. Language skills: way to get a job?. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 August 15].
[36] University of Southampton . 2015. Southampton Language Opportunity. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 August 15].
[37] BBC News . 2014. Languages to be compulsory in English primary schools. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 August 15].
[38] The Guardian . 2014. Most Europeans can speak multiple languages. UK and Ireland not so much. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 August 15].
[39] BBC News . 2014. Languages to be compulsory in English primary schools. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 August 15].
[40] BBC NEWS. 2015. Britons 'nervous to speak foreign language when abroad'. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 August 15].
[41] Barton , A, 2006. Getting the Buggers into Languages P.64. 2nd ed. London: Continuum International Publishing Group
[42] Barton , A, 2006. Getting the Buggers into Languages P.62. 2nd ed. London: Continuum International Publishing Group
[43] ALL. 2015. The life and legacy of Barry Jones. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 August 15].
[44] Simon M Gill. 2000. Review of Pathfinder 24: "Exploring Otherness", by Barry Jones. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 August 15].
[45] E.M Forster. 2014. E. M. Forster quotes. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 August 15].
[46] CatAcademy. 2013. CatAcademy . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 August 15].
[47] BBC News. 2013. Cute cats could be key to learning new languages. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 August 15].

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