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So how can we get more young people studying modern languages at university?

Apparently, despite tuition fees, university applications in the UK are at record levels. One notable subject area which has struggled in recent years, however, is modern languages. What could we do to get more young people continuing with languages in higher education and thus help to address the shortage of linguists which business reports?
  • Firstly, all the while the A-level/post 16 academic curriculum is so narrow, various subjects will always struggle to attract recruits. MFL is not alone. The last twenty years has also seen a sharp decline in students studying, for example, history and geography. We need bums on seats at A-level to secure a larger number of undergraduates. To address this we need to broaden the A-level curriculum which we failed to do in 2000. A recent report has recommended we do the same, but will fall on governmental deaf ears. The traditional A-level is a protected species and, apparently, a global brand.
  • Secondly, we need to make a qualification in a language prerequisite for entry to at least (and maybe all) some universities. UCL's current policy sets the example. If pupils knew that to go to a Russell Group university, or better a wider pool of universities, then they would flock in greater numbers to GCSE and, one would assume, A-level. 
  • Thirdly, we need to keep ramming home the messages about the benefits to one's personal growth and job prospects of learning a language. We have been building up STEM subjects for years and need to do the same for languages.
  • Lastly, we need to finally address the issue of severe grading at both GCSE and A-level. MFL is nearly half a grade harder than maths and English at GCSE. At A-level it is one of the hardest subjects along with sciences.  Too many schools are reporting that students do not choose languages because it is harder to get a good grade. That's not right or fair.

Two policies which are unlikely to produce results are primary school MFL (too thin, too inexpertly taught, not enough progression) and compulsory MFL at GCSE. The latter would be positive in as far as more students would get to a low intermediate level, but most would still continue to dislike languages and not wish to carry on. Don't forget, languages are hard and will always only attract a minority in the UK which speaks the world lingua franca.

All the while we continue to produce too few linguists at least we will be able, as in other fields, to fill the employment gaps with migrants, but this is not really good enough, is it? Too few young people are reaping the rewards that an education in a second language produce.


  1. Although I agree with much of what you say Steve (certainly on grading and the importance of increasing the number of linguists) there are a few more positive things we should add:

    -the potential for combining language learning with broader communication skills including digital literacies for all levels. We have an expressed requirement from businesses for young people who have better interpersonal and technological skills.
    A broader choice of A level curriculum could help to address this.

    -Emphasising the ease of language learning in today's shrinking world. It has never been easier to organise connections at a distance as we are seeing with e-twinning and #globalclassroom initiatives bringing greater authenticity to the classroom. This is a challenge we need to embrace.

    Speak to the Future
    is a cross sector campaign to promote the language capabilities of the UK and to include them in creating a STEM+ agenda, enhancing the core literacies for the future.
    (BTW don't hold your breath on HE entry requirements!)

    1. Thank you for commenting Teresa. I'm not sure I get your first point. I always thought learning a language improved communication skills along the way. I take the second point, although, for me, it falls into the category of enhancing rather than fundamentally changing, if you see what I mean! I like thew idea of a "STEM+ agenda".

      I'm not quite sure why the traditional "gold standard" A-level seems untouchable. Universities protecting their own subject areas? Fear of dumbing down? (Hard to claim that when we know how challenging IB is.) England/Wales is an outlier in this regard. Yes, not holding breath on university entry requirement. To study French at uni you have to have GCSE maths (is that right?). To study maths you don't have to have a language. This reflects our cultural bias.


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