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UK must regain strength in language skills after GCSE results, says British Academy

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As nationwide GCSE results are published, the British Academy today responds to the modest rise in students choosing to study a language in England.

A rise of 4% in entries for language GCSEs has been driven by growth in French and Spanish, although in entries in German continue to decline.

The British Academy highlights these positive signs in language take-up, but cautions that there is still a long way to go to turn around the long-term decline in language-learning in the UK, noting that 10% fewer pupils took a language GCSE in England this year than in 2014.

The fall in language GCSEs has knock-on effects for take-up at A level, which declined 5% in 2019 compared to last year, and subsequently affects the provision of modern languages in higher education, where at least 10 language departments have closed in the last decade.

While French and Spanish GCSE saw increases in entry numbers, rates of entry for other language GCSEs continued to show a small decline, suggesting that more pupils could be encouraged to take exams in languages that are a vital part of the vibrant multilingual heritage of Britain such as Polish, Arabic and Urdu.

The number of GCSEs awarded in history and geography in England also rose this year, by 7% and 4% respectively.

Professor Simon Swain, Professor of Classics and Greco-Arabic Studies at the University of Warwick and Vice-President for Research and Higher Education Policy at the British Academy, said:

“The small increase in entries in modern languages GCSE for England is a positive sign that the long-term decline may be starting to change. Still only around half of school pupils in England are taking a qualification in a language other than English at this stage, compared to three quarters in 2002.

“Learning a language is about far more than being able to communicate when we travel abroad on holiday or on business. It broadens our mental horizons and helps us to understand and respect other cultures and communities. There is now increasing evidence that competence in languages is beneficial for learning in other curriculum subjects and for cognitive function more generally too.

“Learning a second language presents real advantages from an early age, which is why I hope this is the start of a more positive trend for language education in schools. We ought to take this opportunity to excel once again in language-learning and the British Academy is working with other stakeholders to determine how best to ensure the sustainability of the whole pipeline for language study and research.”

The British Academy has called for a national strategy for languages to enable the UK to meet its linguistic potential at all levels, from early years education through to adulthood.

Evidence shows that learning a language enhances other cognitive skills, such as creativity (according to the British Academy’s recent report, The Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning), and can be highly beneficial for a range of careers.

*Figures in this statement relate to results data for England only. A more detailed analysis based on provisional entry data released in May 2019 is also available.