Worrying decline in study of languages, warns British Academy

11 Jan 2018

Following today’s publication by HESA of HE Student Statistics (2016/17), the British Academy has expressed concerns at a decline of student numbers choosing languages at undergraduate level. 

Entries for full-time and part-time undergraduate students taking languages were down 4% and 9% respectively. 

The British Academy is deeply concerned that this year’s decline will further reduce the already low supply of students who are qualified to go on to careers as language teachers in secondary schools.

The decline also damages the UK’s position at the cutting-edge of international research. Much of that research requires language skills, but fewer undergraduates will now go on to study languages at a higher level (postgraduate, research).

Professor Neil Kenny, lead Fellow for languages at the British Academy, said:

“It is disappointing and worrying that the number of undergraduates studying languages continues to decline, reflecting the trends we also see in GCSE and A level numbers.

“Studying a language brings enormous benefits to each individual, as well as to society. Everyone should have the opportunity to study at least one language other than English, at least up to the age of 16. At the moment, about half the population stops at 14.

“In addition, if the UK is to have a thriving economy based on innovation, creativity, research, communication, trade, and global understanding, then a section of the population needs to acquire more advanced, degree-level understanding of other languages. We need more than ever to strengthen that advanced skills base, but these latest figures show that it’s weakening.

“The British Academy’s recent policy work has shown the rich range of skills that degrees in languages provide, both technical skills and broader analytical ones. Our previous policy work showed that languages are vital to an array of UK sectors, such as trade and business, security, and diplomacy, and that language graduates are in high demand from employers. In our Born Global research, 70% of small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) employers agreed that future executives will need foreign language skills. 

“Studying a language gives people an adaptable, open, outward-looking mindset. It’s a mindset that is not only in demand amongst employers but makes for good citizens, curious about the diversity of the world around them. Languages can help us forge relationships, build trust and develop understanding beyond borders.

“We need to do much more to encourage language learning at degree level for some as well as at school level for all.”

For more information, get in touch with Joe Christmas in the press office.

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