Mayday, M’aidez! - a history of the UK languages crisis
Illustration by Pavethra Jegatheesan

It is an oft maligned trait of the British citizen that they rely on the ‘global’ language of English wherever they find themselves in the world. Sunburnt and sweating, they bluster their way through restaurants and supermarkets, repeating themselves ever slower and ever louder in an attempt to make themselves understood. Aside from the prevalence of unmitigated alcoholism, this is perhaps the most dreaded flaw of British tourists across the globe. But what if these shortcomings were not an inherent flaw of the British population, a genetic predisposition for monolingualism, but instead a result of the consistent and repeated failings of a government that simply doesn’t recognise the value of teaching languages? 

Traditionally, modern foreign language teaching has been a marker of a privileged and well-funded education. In the 17th and 18th century, wealthy young men undertook the Grand Tour across Europe, of which one of the primary aims was to improve their command of foreign languages (French in the main, but perhaps also Italian or German). Young aristocratic women, fortunate enough to receive an education, were also often trained in French to enable their smooth integration into the upper echelons of society. 

As education became more widespread, modern languages were introduced into formal education from 1858 – although the teachers, normally native speakers themselves, were looked down upon as less qualified than their English counterparts. As native English speaking ‘experts’ in foreign languages emerged, they developed an all too recognisable curriculum –  drilling students on grammatical points rather than focusing on the joy of language learning for communication. When they should have been inspiring generations of young people and cementing languages’ esteemed place in the education system, exam boards instead sowed the seeds of perennial discontent amongst students that still persists today. 

they developed an all too recognisable curriculum –  drilling students on grammatical points rather than focusing on the joy of language learning for communication.

The National Languages Strategy, delivered by the Secretary of State for Education in 2002, is perhaps the single greatest upheaval of language teaching in recent times. In a damning blow of which the shockwaves are still being felt, the government decided to make GCSE languages non-compulsory in England (a decision that was actually implemented in 2004). In an incongruous positive step, the strategy also pushed for every Key Stage 2 pupil to be offered at least one language by the end of the decade. The prevailing theory was that, by encouraging language take up in primary school, students would naturally continue their studies throughout their educational career.

This was not to be the case.

By 2006, just two years after the implementation of the policy, the BBC was already reporting that languages were at “the point of no return”. Entries for German were down by 14.2%, crashing below the 100,000 entries barrier that had previously classed it as a ‘major’ subject. French was down by 13.2%. Even Spanish, which had been on the rise and establishing itself as a newly dominant language, was in decline. This trend has continued ever since.

In an education system that prioritises league table positions above all else, a famously harshly marked subject like modern languages was always going to become a casualty. A school principal interviewed as recently as last year believes languages are still seen as a “high-risk choice” – schools have complained year after year that marks in language subjects are substantially lower in comparison to other results. Amongst mounting concerns, Ofqual conducted a consultation into language exam grading  and published in November 2018 that they would be making no adjustments. Yet in 2019, a BBC survey of English secondary schools discovered that 76% of respondents thought that “perceptions that the course/exams are too difficult” was the main reason behind low entries.

Faced with year after year of the same nose-dives in languages entries, the government began to take steps to correct their mistakes. One of the first signs of improvement came in 2011 with the inclusion of a modern or ancient language on the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), a performance indicator linked to GCSEs. The measure was a welcome indication of a renewed commitment to promoting languages in schools. But in a depressingly familiar pattern, in 2016 (just one year after the EBacc was made compulsory) this headway was almost immediately undercut by the introduction of Progress 8 – a new principal performance indicator which doesn’t require a modern language as part of the measurement.

As may be apparent, the now optional EBacc did not turn the tide for modern languages. With entries still in freefall, the government looked to a more radical solution – overhauling the syllabus entirely, in line with the GCSE and A-Level reforms that were put in place by 2018. In a particularly innovative step, they officially involved university lecturers in the consultation, in order to foster a smoother transition between modern language teaching at A Level and university. There were, however, a number of problems with this.

Firstly, and most importantly, secondary school teachers were not included in the panel. This inevitably furthered the disconnect between the decisions made by the government and the actual needs of students and teachers. Secondly, the consultation was rushed, allowing neither time for the genuine overhaul that the language curriculum was crying out for, nor for teachers to prepare for the new syllabus. Finally, the new GCSE and A-Level curriculums were implemented at the same time. Given that A-Level language qualifications are designed to build smoothly off the GCSE ones, this inevitably disadvantaged students who took mismatched exams (i.e those who took the old GCSE, but the new A-Level). 

ignoring both teachers and students in the process has directly hindered the process of boosting MFL’s (modern foreign languages’) popularity.

The exact details of how the consultation was conducted may seem irrelevant – but we can see that ignoring both teachers and students in the process has directly hindered the process of boosting MFL’s (modern foreign languages’) popularity. In 2014, the Guardian found that students’ main reason for not choosing a language GCSE was that “other subjects are more interesting”. Most of them also said that languages could be made more appealing with access to native speakers, either through an exchange or otherwise. Only 18% said that foreign films and TV would help – and yet, the new curriculum focuses heavily on film and literature analysis. 

So where are we now? Following over 15 years of floundering attempts by the government to save languages in schools, with little to no demonstrable success, the future seems bleak. Students who could well have decided to pursue languages at GCSE or A-Level have likely been put off by a government that has repeatedly ignored their needs – that same Guardian study found that 70% of students “would be interested in learning another language”, but they have yet to make an appearance in the data.

Given the current global climate, the subject choices of teenagers may seem irrelevant to most  (for many, there are other more pressing problems taking up their focus for now). Yet this attitude strikes at the heart of the issue. The importance of language learning, not just for personal development, but for the benefit of the nation as a whole, has simply not been impressed upon the majority of the population. The language crisis has far more wide reaching implications than just inside the classroom.

The decision to make languages compulsory in primary schools, whilst superficially a step forward, has stretched an already struggling sector almost to breaking point. The lack of GCSE and A-Level students taking languages means a lack of MFL university graduates (since 200, over 50 universities have scrapped language courses, or even entire departments) This in turn has led to a severe skills shortage when it comes to language teachers. With the impact of Brexit adding to the plethora of issues, EU workers who may have otherwise considered coming to the UK to teach languages may now find it too difficult to obtain a permit.

And what of Brexit? Beyond a skills shortage, our departure from the EU may only serve to foster the existing preconception that there is no need to learn any language besides English. A YouGov survey found that only 23% of British people believe it will be more important to learn European languages after Brexit. Yet our withdrawal from the common market will necessitate forging trade deals with countries beyond the boundaries of the continent. Perhaps we may focus our attention on some of the fastest growing economies in the world – two of which speak French as their official language. 

The fact of the matter is that the UK is ensnared in a language crisis that the government has done nothing to alleviate (and in some cases, has actively worsened). It is a crisis that may only get worse from here. And while some people will always be too scared, too busy, or simply too apathetic to learn another language – there will always be those sunburnt tourists – we must do more to assert the importance of languages not just within our schools and universities, but across the population as a whole.

Now is the time to reverse our language crisis – before it really is too late.