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Modern languagesLanguage learning takes a nose dive at a time when it couldn’t be more important

By Kate Hilpern

Modern foreign language learning has taken a nose dive in UK secondary schools, according to new BBC analysis. In fact, it’s at its lowest level since the turn of the millennium, with French and German suffering the most.

We’re not surprised. Headteachers often look sheepish when we bring up the L word and regularly defend the situation by pointing out that it’s a national trend. The BBC’s findings – which involved contacting every single mainstream secondary school in the UK, with over half responding – makes for particularly grim reading, with a drop of 30 per cent of pupils taking German GCSE and 50 per cent taking French GCSE since 2013 in the worst affected areas.

The main reason, say schools, is that languages are perceived as difficult and therefore a high-risk GCSE choice. In an educational landscape of ever tightening budgets, many schools conclude they can’t justify the tiny classes and have cut the numbers of specialist language teachers and indeed the exams on offer. Another survey shows a third of secondary schools have dropped at least one language from their GCSE options and the BBC study shows a whopping 41 per cent of schools in Scotland having stopped offering a foreign language course to 16-year-olds altogether.

The ripple effect is huge. It includes cultural links being lost, with some schools dropping exchange programmes with foreign students, as well as less take up of languages at higher education. No wonder businesses are expressing alarm. With Brexit round the corner, everyone acknowledges the need for a global Britain, yet our so-called work ready youngsters often lack cultural awareness and the ability to communicate with people from around the world.

To be fair, the government has already taken some steps, including funding to open a National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy and to roll out a cross-sector mentoring project, which was successfully piloted in Wales. The government is also investing in supporting Mandarin teaching. But while there was a short-lived rise in the number of pupils taking languages in 2011 when the English Baccalaureate was introduced, a number of surveys – including the annual British Council survey of English primary and secondary schools – report on the overall decline of modern foreign languages teaching, which began in 2004 when languages were taken out of the compulsory curriculum in secondary schools.

But it is not all doom and gloom, with many of the schools we review boasting thriving language departments, often against the odds. Sometimes this is because the school has a high number of pupils with EAL (English as an additional language) and so a language qualification in their mother tongue is seen as an easy win. We have been impressed by the number of schools that endeavour to facilitate any language if there is a demand, however low the numbers – Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese and Polish have all been offered at one time or another in some of them, including state secondaries.

Schools that get it right also work hard to push the benefits of learning a language right from year 7 – better job prospects in a global marketplace, the opportunity to study or work overseas, embracing other cultures, being more reflective of your own cultural identity and an incentive to travel, among them. Not to mention the many transferable skills, including problem solving, lateral thinking, learning techniques to boost your memory and improving your native language, just to name a few. Likewise, schools with strong modern languages departments work to overcome the perceived downsides including languages being difficult, an assumption that most business is done in English and that the way languages are taught in schools aren’t useful in real life.

We’ve been to schools where language learning is really engaging, relevant and crosses over with the cultural aspects – politically, socially and historically, for example. Not for these schools a repetitive, monotone chalk-and-talk style of teaching French verb conjugation or German adjective endings week upon week, but with genuinely exciting classes using the likes of murder mysteries to make learning grammar (surely the most boring bit) genuinely fun. Today’s teachers have access to battleship games to teach Spanish and interactive board games to teach French, and there’s plenty more where those come from. In many cases, given half the chance, we’d have gladly joined the lessons ourselves.

Let’s have more of all this, please, and of the government promoting and enabling it to become more widespread.

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