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Two takes on the decline of foreign languages in British schools

“Brexit ‘hitting foreign languages in schools'” says the BBC, quoting its kindred spirits in the British Council – which for those that don’t know is the Muggle Wizengamot a worthy body formed in the 1930s, a decade after the BBC, in order to promote British culture and the teaching of the English language abroad and of foreign languages in the UK.

Brexit is causing poorer children to fall further behind in learning foreign languages, says the British Council.

Parents in disadvantaged areas are telling teachers languages will be less useful after Brexit, it says.

The graph that comes with BBC story gives no support whatsoever to the claim that Brexit is hitting foreign languages in schools.

It is true that the number of English, Welsh and Northern Irish pupils taking a foreign language at GCSE level is in apparently inexorable decline. Why? Because of the rise of English as a world language. However the inexorable decline is, er…, exored at two points.

The first break in the downward slope of the graph comes about half a year after the introduction of the English Baccalaureate in 2010. Despite its name the Bacc is not an educational qualification. It is a performance measure that the government imposed on schools. The aim is to stop schools gaming the system by putting the pupils in for lots of easy exams. To this end schools, not pupils, are marked on how many pupils get decent grades in proper subjects, including foreign languages. “That which is measured, improves”, as the saying goes – and that explains the uptick after 2010. But by 2013 or so (the unmarked horizontal axis of that graph is an abomination) the downward trend returns.

The second, lesser pause in the decline happens about six months after Brexit. The line flattens. Allowing for the same time lag as followed the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, Brexit if anything seems to have stemmed the decline in numbers of British pupils studying foreign languages. Perhaps some kids calculate that if there will be fewer native speakers of those languages around to compete with after Brexit, then any linguistic skills they might obtain will be more in demand.

OK, OK, correlation is not causation. But at least that hypothesis actually has some correlation to wave a hand hopefully at, unlike the preferred hypothesis of the BBC and the British Council:

The British Council report also describes a shift in attitude, with some parents saying languages are “little use” as the UK is due to leave the European Union.

Teresa Tinsley, the report author, says secondary schools in poorer areas are reporting a very definite Brexit effect, which could lead to an even sharper decline in language learning.

Brexit has superpowers: it could do almost anything.

Scattered at random among the single-paragraph sentences of this BBC report there are two that point to a more likely possible culprit than Brexit-bourne viral xenophobia:

It warns that GCSEs and A-level languages in England are seen as being hard subjects in which to get a good grade.


It warns of growing concern that GCSEs and A-levels in modern foreign languages are seen as harder than other subjects.

That, unlike Brexit, is something they really do talk about at the school gates.

But why are the grade boundaries in language exams getting harsher? That is the point that the Times has chosen to focus on in its piece on the same British Council report: “Bilingual pupils distort results in language exams”

Schools are enabling pupils to take foreign language exams in their native tongue, making it harder for everyone else to get the top grades, a report has found.

The British Council’s annual Language Trend Survey found that more than 80 per cent of schools now arrange for pupils to take exams for the language they speak at home, with the most common being Polish and Portuguese. Often pupils need only a few lessons in exam technique rather than any formal lessons in the language itself.

In the report teachers expressed disquiet at this growing trend. “In some languages, for example Italian, the number of native speakers taking the GCSE and A-level exams are skewing the grade boundaries hugely — why is this allowed?” said one.

The finding comes alongside a warning by the British Council that the newly reformed and tougher GCSE and A levels were putting pupils off languages, with many believing they stand a far better chance of gaining top grades in almost any other subject.

I do not see any easy way round this. Any attempt to make separate exams for native and non-native speakers will be bedevilled by edge cases. And there is a harsh logic to the idea that if you hold an examination to measure how well someone speaks Italian, for example, then if it shows Italians speaking Italian better than all but a few non-Italians it probably means that the examination is functioning correctly. I certainly do not propose that the government shove its oar in.

I was merely interested to see what very different structures the BBC and the Times built upon the same foundation of that British Council report.

Added later: The Guardian’s treatment of the same story, “Brexit ‘putting pupils off modern foreign languages'” , displays the same oddities in its structure and choice of headline as did the BBC article. It briefly mentions that far more of the teachers surveyed cited the difficulty of the exams as the cause of the reduced interest from pupils in taking GCSEs in foreign languages than had cited Brexit. Then it goes on at length about Brexit.

While more than two-thirds of teachers surveyed by the British Council said the difficulty of the exams was causing concern, one in four said Brexit had “cast a pall” over pupils learning any foreign languages, with some parents actively discouraging their children.

Teachers told researchers that they have seen a shift in attitudes since the Brexit referendum, with one reporting: “We have had parents mention that they do not believe their son or daughter should be studying a language as it is little to no use to them now that we are leaving the European Union.”

Another teacher noted comments from pupils, “obviously heard at home, such as now we’ve left/are leaving the EU you won’t need this any more”.

28 comments to Two takes on the decline of foreign languages in British schools

  • -XC

    In most us pre-secondary schools (i.e. – High Schools, kids under 18 or so) they try to separate out the native from non-native Spanish speakers because their needs are very different. Native or “home” speakers need intensive grammar and spelling but little memorization. At the “literature” level you see the kids come back together in one class.

    in the US the Bacc is unusual but we do have Advanced Placement (AP) tests that are administered by a more-or-less neutral non-government organization. All kids, no matter their family background, take the same test. I did not hear a lot of B&M about Hispanic kids breaking the curve. My guess is that there are a lot of non Hispanic Tracey Flick’s over-achieving in that particular arena.


  • Gavin Longmuir

    It is indeed interesting that two entities can extract such different messages from the same set of figures. Statistical analysis ain’t easy!

    There is an intriguing point about the graph in the BBC article — running counter to the overall decline, A-level language exams for “Other” languages (not Spanish, French, German, Welsh) have almost tripled in about the last 20 years, from about 30,000 to almost 100,000. Maybe this is Northern Irish students rediscovering Gaelic, or children of Polish extraction polishing their home language skills so they can return to their ancestral homelands.

    But maybe an element of this growth in “Other” is students looking to the future? For an English-speaking student today, the languages to learn for future opportunities are Chinese (the language of the workshop of the world) or, if that is a step too far, Russian (the language of vast resource-rich under-developed under-populated Siberia). A not-insignificant side benefit for young males is that many Chinese & Russian young ladies are uncommonly attractive, mercifully free from the excesses of Western “Feminism”, and pre-disposed to like Western males.

  • pete

    Maybe children would be more motivated to do a language GCSE if there were more good teachers of them about.

    There are constant government adverts on TV and radio begging people to train as teachers, a sure sign that the job is not desirable to enough graduates.

    There are no adverts for NHS managers, council pen-pushers or civil service accountants.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    If you speak two languages, you’re bilingual.
    If you speak one language, you’re Australian!
    England is not alone in having problems with languages. Even though we had a Prime Minister who spoke Mandarin (K. Rudd), this has not been repeated.

  • bobby b

    I can relate to those Polish kids the Council is complaining about. I took Spanish all through high school in Minnesota, mostly for the automatic A’s it earned me. I grew up in Compton (part of south Los Angeles) speaking Spanglish, so it was like going home again.

    If you are receiving the credit for knowing a subject – as opposed to receiving the credit for having sat through the classes – then there’s nothing improper about giving an A in Polish class to the Polish-speaking kid.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    A few months ago in the Observer columnist Gaby Hinsliff claimed that the UK’s poor foreign language education status will decline after Brexit. She didn’t as far as I know ask why state achools’ teaching of foreign languages has been poor in the 45 years since we joined the EU. Being in this tranzi organisation plainly hasn’t emboldened students to learn foreign languages. Of course the usual explanation will be to blame the situation on “cuts”. I attended state schools in the 70s and 80s and did German and French – with Latin added in – during the Great Terror of Margaret Thatcher (sarcasm alert) so “cuts” won’t explain this.

  • Mal Reynolds

    It’s amazing that the impartial BBC highlights that the cause of the decline in languages is a political event that has not yet occurred. Really makes you think…

  • Pat

    How useful is a foreign language for most? And which one? Is it for use in holiday? Well it makes the holiday more interesting but you can get by with English, and do you really want to dedicate years of learning for each country you visit?
    Is it for business? Again is it worth years of learning for each country? Not to mention that the vast majority don’t do any business at all, and most of those who do so do it in Britain.
    Then there is a question of standards. Schoolboy French is pretty well useless as is schoolboy any language. If you’re not on track for an A you probably won’t be able to use what you’ve learned.
    And then there’s maintaining the knowledge. If you don’t practise regularly you lose it.
    For most people a foreign language is a status symbol rather than a practical attainment. In part because it enables them to identify with “exotic” people and claim special knowledge.
    And of course foreign language teachers want to sell their courses, We should think before we buy.

  • Rudolph Hucker

    Is it me? Or do the BBC and British Council seem to be both carefully ignoring the issues of foreign language course availability and DoH financing?

    The following is anecdotal evidence, so I’d be interested to learn if it matches anyone else’s experience.

    My children’s school joined the English Baccalaureate scheme c.2010. For three years everything was fine, and the number of students taking language courses increased (including my eldest child). Then the school said it could no longer afford to run what was in effect two streams of education with smaller class sizes (Baccalaureate and non-Baccalaureate). So they pulled out of the Baccalaureate scheme. Guess what? There was a collapse in the number of students taking language courses.

    Eldest child had just finished French and Spanish A-levels in time to escape as the portcullis dropped. Then went on to Uni and took extra-curricular studies in Mandarin and Arabic, so can now be dropped in a major population centre in c.90% of the world, and be able to communicate.

  • Mr Ed

    I saw it attributed to Bernie Ecclestone the saying that someone who doesn’t speak English isn’t worth speaking to. Harsh but probably fair for him.

    The other day, I stepped in to a dispute in an English hotel to interpret for a baffled German tourist who spoke no English and had been mistakenly charged for something she didn’t want. The two hotel staff involved were Polish and Portuguese, neither had any German. I did German to ‘O’-level, (which shows how long ago it was, over 1/3rd of a century) and it wasn’t an easy exam. When a decade later I did a Spanish GCSE, it struck me as ludicrously debased compared to ‘O’-level.

  • John B

    Are there any statistics to show how UK compares with other European Nations for foreign languages in schools once English as a ‘foreign’ language is removed from the European school figures?

  • Jhn1

    If it only native speakers skewing the curve, stop grading on the curve.
    If you are dissatisfied as to which languages the students are taking, then have the discussion as to which languages the taxpayer pays for classes to teach. Or which languages count towards your numbers, or whatever.
    Don’t let them hide the argument as something else.

  • Almost all the German I know was learnt from history, not from language classes. It therefore consists in large part of:

    – philosophical concepts of very doubtful utility and morality

    – military terms

    – euphemisms for killing people

    Luckily for me, I don’t know enough to spoil watching ‘Downfall’ parodies. 🙂

    English-speaking people are bad at languages because our language has almost no case endings, precisely one noun with gender (blond/blonde) and etc. Thus learning these things in other languages struggles, for many English people, with a semi-conscious feeling of “this is stupid”. I do not defend this – we are the outlier and if you think about what the first words in the first languages were (hint, ‘neuter’ was probably not among them) then you can see why – I just note it.

  • Pete the Other

    Britain – or anywhere else where English is the first language – has a huge educational advantage. If a child spends 12 years in school, and assuming it takes one-eighth of the second six years to achieve marginal facility in one foreign language (my recollection from a long time ago), that is three-quarters of a year’s education. So, if we native English speakers drop the foreign language on the assumption that English is the default foreign language for everyone else (largely true) we have three-quarters of a school year available for something more useful: maths, physics, engineering, what have you. And we’ll still be able to communicate with foreign language speakers because they have had to learn English, usually to far more than a marginal standard. By wasting time on half-learning foreign languages, we are merely squandering that. Harsh, yes; true, also yes.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    It is interesting that, on Netflix, most of the foreign language films show the importance of English in Asia. One Korean film even showed a hospital door with ‘Staff Only’, only in English! And an Indian series, Anjaan, almost doesn’t need subtitles, because English words have been imported whole into the language! I suppose an emerging world language will be inspired by English, with loan-words from all over the place.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Penetration of English into non-English discourse is remarkable.

    The Grand Tour (Amazon’s version of Top Gear) recently visited China. It seems that in China, motorway signs are in Chinese and English.

    I watch a fair amount of European (non-English) TV, imported to the US by MHz Network. English shows up frequently. For instance, Swedish narcotics detectives bust a drug courier who is Estonian. They shout “Police, freeze”, in English; then negotiate to release him if he leads them to his boss – again in English.

    A Norwegian detective operating with German police speaks with them in English.

    A Dutch detective remarks on the burglary of the house of the murdered widow of a diamond merchant: “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”

    None of these passages were subtitled, by the way; the audience was expected to understand.

    An Italian show’s credits include entries for “Art Director”, “Business Development”, “Location Manager”, “Casting”, “Stunt”, “Data Manager”, “Operatore Backstage”, “Lab Supervisor”, “Foley Artist”, “Digital Compositor”, “Visual Effects”, “Catering”, and “Make-Up”, and ‘Thanks To’ entries for “Hotel Yacht Club” and “Yachting Bar”.

  • Rob

    Unfortunately for them they have spent the past three decades, at least, complaining about the decline in the number of pupils studying foreign languages, and I remember.

    In the current year however it is a useful gambit for them, as no-one remembers what happened even last week and so will swallow this rubbish whole.

  • The Pedant-General

    bobby b:
    “then there’s nothing improper about giving an A in Polish class to the Polish-speaking kid.”

    This is true, but I fear there is one other point which seems to be being missed: what is actually the point of these exams?

    As an employer, I am looking for intelligence and determination and a work ethic. If a CV came across my desk showing more or less any exam in a candidate’s native language then it is both a hygiene factor (if it’s not an A, then the candidate will be peremptorily binned) and a likely mark down: why did this candidate sacrifice valuable timetable space to get an essentially useless qualification? It tells me nothing. I would look askance at it, on the basis that it could display laziness or a lack of ambition and I would look to confirm at interview that this was taken on the side (i.e. norm for school is 8 GCSEs, this candidate has 9 for example).

  • neonsnake

    How useful is a foreign language for most? And which one?

    I tend to the same view. I speak very, very bad Spanish, and that’s about it. I’ve never had a problem travelling for pleasure or for business – the “which one” is important, because a single trip to the Far East could have me in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia.

    And if somehow I mastered Mandarin, and began using it in a business meeting, the rest of my colleagues who are with me are suddenly excluded from the conversation. Same goes for German, Romanian, Italy, Polish and Portuguese, all of which I’d need to know – but have never had to know anything other than English.

    Even in China, I’ve travelled alone for pleasure, and never had an issue. Got lost on the trains once, I think that’s about it. I managed to get a bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing all on my own – as in, not on my own, because everyone spoke enough English that I muddled through.

    As to the learning and variance between O-Level and GCSE – I have an A in GSCE French. I don’t speak French, and probably by age 18 I didn’t speak French. I don’t think I really could have been termed as a “French-Speaker” even the week after I took the relevant exams, at 16.

    (i.e. norm for school is 8 GCSEs, this candidate has 9 for example).

    Is it really only 8 now? Blimey. In my day it was a minimum of 9, with heavy encouragement to take one on the side (in my school, at least) to make it up to 10. The “one on the side” would generally have been a second foreign language (one foreign language being a minimum), including Latin if wanted, or further Religious Education.

  • The Pedant-General

    “Is it really only 8 now? Blimey”

    Depends where you come from. I got 10 O-levels, but only because I dropped Greek at a late stage. State schools tend to do fewer. In Scotland, they’ve made a complete mess of everything and keep everything really broad until the very last minute, then only have time to take 5 subjects to GCSE equivalent.

  • Mal Reynolds

    At my state school, which I left less than 10 years ago, I had to do 12 GCSEs (only one more than most of the others due to doing 3 in science rather than combining into 2). So no, 8 is not standard.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    It has been said that when the Normans (descendants of the Vikings, still with a Viking ethic) took over from the Anglo-Saxons after 1066, they learned proto-English to tell their subjects what to do while continuing to speak Norman-French among themselves. Any Anglo-Saxon who managed to pick up Norman-French had his head cut off, because preserving the ability to in effect talk in code in front of the subjugated Anglo-Saxons was immensely valuable to the conquerors. One might think of the Navajo “Code Talkers” who were so valuable to the US in WWII.

    We can see an analogous thing today in places like the Arab world and China, where it is sometimes useful for the natives to be able to communicate without the honkies understanding — although good manners on the part of Arab & Chinese means that they usually speak in English when there are foreigners around. An English lady I met in the UAE made a good living as a realtor, in part because she had taken the time to learn Arabic but kept that fact a secret in her professional life dealing with Arab-speaking property owners.

    Don’t assume that the rest of the world learning English as their preferred second language (understandable after the world-spanning British Empire and the subsequent post-WWII US dominance) is necessarily an advantage for the native English speaker.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Gavin Longmuir – July 5, 2019 at 3:47 pm:

    Any Anglo-Saxon who managed to pick up Norman-French had his head cut off, because preserving the ability to in effect talk in code in front of the subjugated Anglo-Saxons was immensely valuable to the conquerors. One might think of the Navajo “Code Talkers” who were so valuable to the US in WWII.

    This is the first I’ve ever heard of that, and I don’t believe it for a moment.

    In the first place, conquerors don’t want to have to learn the language of the conquered. It’s never happened in history; they always expect the conquered to accommodate them.

    In the second place. Norman French was no kind of secret in Saxon England before the Conquest: many Normans served Edward the Confessor (and were resented by Saxon courtiers).

    And in the third place there was much sea traffic between England and Normandy, whose participants knew both languages.

    Besides which, the idea of trying to prevent the English from learning Norman French was obviously fatuous. Indian “code talk” remained secure in the two years it was used because the Japanese had zero previous knowledge of it and heard it only in brief snatches: overheard radio messages during actual battles.

    Norman French was spoken all day long by thousands of people before tens of thousands of servants, serfs, soldiers. Of course Saxons would learn it. And how would Normans find out that some Saxon understood French? People who rely on language difference for security are nearly always fools, and the Normans weren’t fools.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Rich R: “In the first place, conquerors don’t want to have to learn the language of the conquered. It’s never happened in history; they always expect the conquered to accommodate them.”

    Not sure about that assertion, Rich, but I am always willing to learn from history. Here is an example — back in the days of the Czars, the Russian Court spoke French to each other, Russians to their servants. Language has many uses, and one of them is separating “us” from “them” — especially when the “us” is the Ruling Class.

    It is also worth remembering that language was much more localized back in 1066, at a time when many people (just like their ancestors) lived their whole lives within about 5 miles of where they were born. There is an entertaining book — “The Measure of All Things”, by Ken Alder (2002) — about the shaky foundations of the whole metric system. Centuries after the Normans took over what is now England, the French astronomers sent out from Paris at around the time of the French Revolution to make an accurate measurement of the meter ran into many problems — one of which was that most of the people in France at that time had little understanding of Parisian French.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    “… conquerors don’t want to have to learn the language of the conquered. It’s never happened in history …”

    Another historical example might be the successful Mongol invasion of China. The Mongol conquerors learned the language(s) of the defeated Chinese and became quite Sinified. China today does not speak the language of their conquerors.

    However, the Mongol rulers did retain for a long time the Mongol cavalry which was the foundation of their military success. I do not recall ever seeing any discussion of what language the Chinese Mongol cavalry used among themselves in the field. If anyone has any insights into that, it would be interesting. We are all on this Earth to learn!

  • I agree with Rich Rostrom that the Normans did not actively try and prevent the serfs learning French. The chief effect of the Normans was to learn English, but only to tourist level – just enough to tell the serfs what to do. English lost all its case endings, genders and etc., because the Norman lords did not know them and saw no need to learn them and the serfs found it inadvisable to correct their ‘betters’ language. Post-1166 English is pre-1066 English after having been spoken for a century by a ruling class that had to speak it – you’ve got to be able to tell the servants what to do, just as a tourist has to be able to tell the waiter what food to bring – but spoke it badly and were never corrected.

  • P. George Stewart

    It’s pretty obvious that if a language is being taught to native English speakers as non-native, then native speakers shouldn’t be getting grades in it, edge cases be damned.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Niall K: “… the Normans did not actively try and prevent the serfs learning French.”

    We are all here to learn, and you are clearly a very well informed individual, Niall. It is a struggle for all of us to known what went on over a thousand years ago. If you have some pointers, it would be very useful.

    But let’s not allow a fascinating discussion about history divert us from the main thrust. Pete commented that there was little need to spend time learning foreign languages — “we’ll still be able to communicate with foreign language speakers because they have had to learn English, usually to far more than a marginal standard”. That is true — but it is also a double-edged sword. In an environment where there the other side effectively controls communication, the person speaking only one language is at a distinct disadvantage. The people knowing only English hear only what those better-educated multi-lingual guys want us to hear.

    Trivial example — a few years back, I watched a Saudi TV broadcast from Mecca during Ramadan. The imam’s prayers and oratory were being translated into English subtitles — except when he got very passionate about a particular topic, and the translation ceased.