The revival of language learning is key to a culturally and linguistically rich future

by Professor Charles Forsdick FBA

26 Sep 2023

We are often presented with two competing narratives surrounding language learning in the UK. On the one hand, we are reminded of the UK's linguistic shortcomings compared with other nations, which presents challenges to maximising economic, social and cultural opportunities. On the other, as demonstrated by the popularity of apps such as Duolingo, there is an unmistakable enthusiasm for language learning across the UK, not least as the country acknowledges its own multilingual heritage. Indeed, in response to a 2022 YouGov poll commissioned by the British Academy, 22% of people said that their interest in modern languages had risen since the pandemic.

In my new role as the British Academy's Lead Fellow for Languages, one of my biggest responsibilities is to try and make sense of this dichotomy, to further understand why people aren’t studying languages, and to help turn things around. As I get started, I draw inspiration from the exceptional contributions of my predecessor in this role, Professor Neil Kenny FBA, who has worked tirelessly and effectively to help revive language learning in this country. During his tenure, Neil has provided invaluable expertise and guidance on the Academy’s languages research and our calls for action across the UK.

In 2020, the Academy and partners published our vision for a national languages strategy, Towards a National Languages Strategy, setting out our proposals for a UK-wide strategy for languages education and skills that spans primary, secondary and higher education. In that strategy, we set out a clear objective to stop the decline in the number of undergraduates studying languages by 2025, and following a period of levelling, sustain an increase in numbers from 2030.

Thankfully, however, we at the British Academy do not operate in isolation. There is a broad and varied network of organisations across the UK who care deeply about the plight of languages and collaboration with them has been crucial. Working with the likes of the University Council For Languages (UCFL) and our Towards a National Languages Strategy partners has helped us to identify the many challenges facing language learning and the opportunities to address the learning deficit in schools and higher education. We have also been looking at how further education can play a role in this language learning ecosystem, connecting colleges, schools, and higher education to create a more diverse group of language learners.

So, how are we getting on? What do the statistics tell us?

Recent findings from the Academy and UCFL demonstrate a complex picture of language learning trends amongst undergraduate students in the UK. Whilst there has been a significant decrease over the past decade amongst those studying single or combined languages undergraduate degrees, the picture for those studying languages in combination with a social science or an arts/humanities subject is more mixed.

At pre-university level, the British Academy’s SHAPE Indicators initiative tracks data on the uptake of languages in UK secondary education. It is encouraging to see languages like Spanish, Arabic, Urdu, and Chinese becoming more popular in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, especially at GCSE. Entries for Spanish have grown by 11.4% since 2022, with Other Modern Languages entries –including those named above – increasing by 9.5%. But when it comes to A-levels, in the last academic year fewer students have taken languages than in 2022, even though there are some small increases in subjects like Arabic and Chinese. In Scotland, language trends vary between National 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers. However, Chinese languages continue to increase in popularity across each qualification level. Entries to Chinese languages National 5s have increased by 9.8%, Highers by 9.3% and Advanced Highers by 13.3% since 2022.

Finally, we know that there is vast, diverse and thus far untapped capacity across multiple languages in the UK which can be harnessed for social, political and economic development and to address domestic and global challenges. To do that, we must fully embrace and commit to acknowledging and celebrating multilingualism, and build up our language skills base accordingly. Raising awareness of the valuable role and place of multilingualism in the UK with learners and policymakers alike will be crucial in working towards this goal.

To support these efforts, the Academy, alongside leading organisations in the field of languages, skills and education, has helped develop a brand-new resource called The Languages Gateway, designed to connect language learners (and aspiring language learners) with all the available opportunities, information, and resources they need to get them started, or to continue, on their specific journey. It is a privilege to contribute to its development and have the opportunity to help improve and tailor this resource to the needs of users as it grows.

The Languages Gateway is just one of the numerous tangible and exciting ways through which we are working towards our ambitions set out in our national languages strategy. I know that, collectively, those of us who care deeply about reviving language learning in the UK have the potential to chart a course toward a richer, more linguistically diverse future.

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