Thursday August 13th saw the publication of the 2015 A level results. It was, on the whole, very good news all round. But as in previous years, the numbers studying languages show a continual decline. As we have retreated from Empire, so our desire to learn the languages of anyone else appears to have withered.
One of the problems of acquiring verbal proficiency in a foreign language is that everyone speaks English and is exposed to the English and American media from an early age. If everyone abroad speaks your language, why bother to speak theirs?
In a recent British Council Poll (from a sample of 2,000), over 25% of UK respondents said that speaking a foreign language made them feel nervous, and 19% of the sample deliberately chose a holiday destination where there was no need to speak a foreign language. This fear of “having a go” is not shared by foreigners. Unlike the British, they are eager to practice even a rudimentary knowledge of English and are not embarrassed to make mistakes.
We know that high grades are increasingly demanded to gain a place at a prestigious university, and so the choice of subject for A level is vital. It is also known that it has become increasingly difficult to gain these high grades in language exams. Why risk, then, getting a B in French or Spanish, when you can realistically hope for an A or A* in what are perceived to be easier subjects? Similarly, it makes little sense to choose a language to study when universities are only eager to extend their bursaries and grants to students predicted to achieve three A’s or A*, A*, A*, A*. This also suggests that the choice of a language at A level would disadvantage students from poorer backgrounds.
A number of languages have almost disappeared from the school curriculum. Examples include German; those taking German at A level fell by 4.3% this year, compared to 2014, and this is a long term trend. Russian (relatively strong in the 1960’s) and Italian both show the same decline.
Nevertheless, it is not all bad news. The numbers taking Spanish are increasing – albeit at the expense of French. In the long term, the introduction of the English Baccalaureate exam to be taken in 2020 might make some difference, too, though it will likely only be marginal.
If we are to expand our global trade, we need to engage foreign business people at all levels in their own languages. the fact is that they like you to do this, even if they speak good English themselves. In an increasingly integrated world, both commercially and culturally, the ability to communicate in the native language is becoming more and more prized.
Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.