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Foreign language learning takes a nosedive in secondary schools

hot air balloons in sky
in Education and Training

I never thought I would become one of those people who laments on the good old days of their youth when life was so much harder, kids were tougher (in a non-hoodie violent kind of way) and cartoons were much better but unfortunately, the inevitable has happened and I found myself open-mouthed in disbelief the other day on reading an article in the Daily Mail – let’s gloss over that part, I normally just look at the pictures – explaining that the number of pupils studying a foreign language has plummeted to just four in 10.[i]

‘In my day,’’ I snorted derisively over my bowl of Coco Pops (still the best cereal in the world – fact) ‘you had to learn another language whether you liked it or not’.

Most of the time you didn’t like it, as you trawled over pluperfect and subjunctive clauses, whilst simultaneously learning how the French were purposefully out to get you with their ‘faux amis’ if you were desperate enough to make a few words up.  You soon realised, however, that there was a point to it all when you went on your first French exchange and tried desperately to make friends with the delightfully moody Jean-Pierre or the wildly exotic Françoise.

Years later, with a language or two under your belt you would come to realise that many doors open to you if you have language skills.  Multinational corporations, the travel industry, publishing houses and, of course, the language services industry are but a few sectors in which language graduates can be rewarded for their qualifications.

So, why then is the Government making languages an optional subject?  Is learning French less valid than studying Science?

I was further shocked to find out that part of the reasoning behind all this madness boils down to school reputation.  In 71 percent of comprehensives, fewer than half of 14-year-olds are learning a language as pupils are being steered towards ‘safe’ options that help their schools climb official league tables.

Another reason for the slump in uptake is down to the Government giving 14 year olds the choice to opt-out of foreign language learning.  As everyone knows, if you give someone the option not to do something, they will invariably make the decision not to do it.  My inner 13 year old self screams ‘It’s just so unfair; we were never allowed to opt out’.

This combination of factors means that hundreds of thousands of pupils are potentially missing out on high-flying careers with multinational companies because they lack proficiency in at least one other language.

If the Government and education system continue to discourage language learning in schools we will only be working to perpetuate the age old myth that the English don’t try as hard as our European cousins to speak another language.  More importantly our graduates of the future will be less equipped than those of today to handle an increasingly more multi-cultural, multi-lingual workplace.  Can the UK economy really afford to opt-out of language education?

[i] Statistics quoted in the Daily Mail article have been taken from a study performed by the National Centre for Languages (CILT)

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