The drop in applications to European language programmes at UK universities will not have come as a great shock to anybody teaching languages. For at least the past 15 years, the number of students applying for modern language degrees has been in decline.
More than a third of UK universities have given up teaching European language degrees. This decline has in turn led to a severe shortage of language skills among the British workforce, with serious consequences for British trade and business.
Data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that there were 92,795 full-time language students across all degree levels in 2012-13. This was down from 96,785 in 2011-12. Languages are now the choice of just 6% of first time degree students.
The reasons are not hard to find. The rise of English as a global language has led to a widespread belief that there is little point in learning other languages since “everybody else speaks English anyway”. Students and their parents often feel that it would be a waste of time studying a language, as they are never likely to need it.
Languages are perceived as “difficult” subjects, and students are often discouraged from taking them, for fear they will stand less chance of obtaining good grades than with subjects perceived as easier.
Languages are not seen as “vocational”, and students often think that the only career paths after a degree in modern languages are teaching or translating. The attitudes of successive governments towards languages in schools have not helped.
Making language learning compulsory
In 2004, the Labour government removed the requirement for students to take a language GCSE, leading to an immediate and sustained decline in numbers.
The current government claims to be encouraging language take-up in schools, by including a foreign language in the EBacc, and introducing compulsory language teaching in primary schools from September 2014. But it remains to be seen whether or not this will lead to a reversal of the decline in applications to university language programmes.
Those university language departments that have managed to remain open have often had to adapt what they offer in order to attract students. It is increasingly common for students to prefer a joint or combined programme, in which language is studied alongside something perceived as more vocational, such as business studies, economics or a social science.
Programmes with translation and interpreting are also more common than they were 15 years ago. Academics in language departments have often had to reinvent themselves, moving into areas of research perceived as more useful.
Language skills in high demand
The fact that the rest of the world speaks English means the average monolingual Brit is at a distinct disadvantage, since our competitors all speak our language and often one more in addition to their own.
For those students who do take up the challenge of language studies, however, the future is far from gloomy. Students and academics alike are aware of the evidence of the UK’s growing deficit in foreign language skills, when global demand for them is growing.
A 2013 report published by the British Academy highlighted the urgent need for language skills at all levels of the workforce, and called on the government and schools, to act in order to improve the supply of linguistically-competent graduates needed.
This message was echoed by an education and skills survey published by the Confederation of British Industry and Pearson. It reported that seven in ten businesses value foreign language skills among their employees.
Another factsheet by the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) said the shortage of language skills was undermining UK export performance. The BCC called for foreign languages to be re-established as core subjects within the national curriculum and in workplace training.
The shortage of language graduates, and the need for them in business, could help explain why they came in sixth place in a list of high earners compiled by the Office for National Statistics. Language graduates were behind maths and computer science, but ahead of social sciences, law, business and finance.
An important factor to bear in mind when thinking about these recent reports, is that language graduates do not “just” have language skills. Studying a language at an advanced level also means studying the associated culture, either through literature, or through “area studies” – history, politics, culture and society – of the country or countries where the language is spoken.
It means spending a period of time, typically an academic year, in one of those countries, improving language skills, but also developing intercultural communication skills and life skills. Language graduates are therefore likely to have not only a particular insight into the culture of the language they have studied, but in a more general way, to be sensitive to cultural difference, and better able to adapt to different situations.
Learning a foreign language to a high level is challenging, but the rewards are great, in terms of job prospects and, perhaps equally importantly, in terms of personal achievement and satisfaction. We can only hope that the current government’s policies really will succeed in conveying that message to young people.