New poll reveals overwhelming UK public support for compulsory language learning in schools

18 Oct 2023

A majority of the UK public would support making modern language learning compulsory in primary and secondary school, according to a new YouGov poll.

The survey, examining British adults’ attitudes and opinions towards learning modern languages, was commissioned by the British Academy to mark the launch today of the Languages Gateway, a new online resource designed to broaden access to language learning for everyone across the UK. The Academy has also renewed its call for a statutory entitlement – the right – to learn a language for children aged 5-18.

According to the YouGov poll, only 21 per cent of UK adults can have a conversation in a modern language that isn’t their mother tongue. The Languages Gateway is a pioneering 'one stop shop' of vital information and resources for anyone interested in language learning, from school, college and university students to leisure learners, from teachers and school leaders to parents, policymakers and employers. It is committed to boosting language-learning at all levels by simplifying access to existing opportunities and information, increasing awareness, and fostering collaboration between different sectors.

Its launch is a direct recommendation of the Towards a National Languages Strategy report, published by the British Academy and four leading education and research organisations – the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the British Council and Universities UK. The strategy, published in 2020, sets out a plan to revive language learning at all levels across the country and calls for a statutory entitlement – the right – to learn a language for students at every stage of the curriculum from age five to eighteen.

The YouGov survey underscores the public’s enthusiasm for this vision, with a remarkable 71 per cent of UK adults supporting the idea of making the study of a modern language compulsory in secondary school, while 64 per cent agree it should be compulsory in primary school.

The poll also found that:

  • Nearly one in two respondents who cannot have a conversation in a modern language regret not engaging more with languages at school (49 per cent)
  • Just over half (51 per cent) of respondents are (very or fairly) interested in learning another language now
  • 35 per cent of respondents said they were not able to study their preferred language at school
  • The biggest block to people learning a language is time constraint (36 per cent), followed by not feeling the need to (20 per cent) and financial constraint (19 per cent)
  • When asked which other modern language they'd most like to learn, 40 per cent of respondents said Spanish, 32 per cent French, 20 per cent said Italian and 18 per cent said German.

Professor Charles Forsdick FBA, the British Academy’s Lead Fellow for Languages, said:

"Our research shows that there is keen public interest in and support for language learning. People of all ages recognise the many benefits of being multilingual, for individuals and wider society, and they want the next generation to enjoy them. We are delighted to launch the Languages Gateway, which brings together a range of resources to help learners of all ages, backgrounds and levels who might be wondering where to start. The tools are out there and we hope this new resource will be helpful in connecting more people with them.

“The poll results clearly show that there is public support for our call for students to have the right and option to study a language at primary and secondary education. We renew that call today as a core component of our wider languages strategy, and stand ready to work with government on making this ambition a reality.”

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2153 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 25th - 26th September 2023.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+)."

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