Language learning is key to UK’s post-crisis recovery, ministers told

Four education bodies teamed up to develop a strategy for ramping up modern languages uptake in schools and unis across the UK

Experts are putting pressure on the Government to take action on falling language learning in the UK, something they say will be key to the UK’s economic recovery from Covid-19.

The British Academy, the British Council, Universities UK and the Association of School and College Leaders have put forward a strategy that could remove the barriers to language learning which are resulting in poor uptake across schools and universities. The number of undergraduates on modern languages courses fell by more than half in a decade to 2017-18.

The organisations said languages are crucial not just for the development of students but for the country and its finances, too.

They pointed out that proficiency in different languages is vital for effective international relations and commercial links – with eyes on Brexit looming at the end of the year – and pointed out that it boosts brain power and social cohesion within communities.

And Britain’s poor linguistic performance accounts for up to 3.5 per cent of GDP in lost trade and investment, they said.

The initiative is the first of its kind in a generation and, taking account of the different language and policy landscapes of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, gives short-term and low-cost steps that would change the face of language learning in schools, colleges and universities across the country.

The strategy includes the creation of a new national languages resources portal and launching a deep-dive into grading and course content for school language exams to ensure a level playing field for students.

Ministers should also create financial support and new qualifications that would incentivise language learning, they said, alongside developing new intensive learning schemes.

As the number of students applying continues to fall, at least ten university modern languages departments have closed in the last decade and another nine significantly downsized.

Professor Neil Kenny FBA, The British Academy’s languages lead, said: “With the Covid-19 pandemic plunging the UK into its worst recession in living memory and exacerbating disparities in educational opportunity, and with the changing relationship to Europe necessitating the development of wider commercial and diplomatic relationships and the recalibration of existing ones, there has never been a more pressing need to take a strategic approach to language learning. Indeed, the question is, ‘If not now, then when?’

“Together with a coalition of partners, we have devised a joined-up and cost-effective strategy that tackles the language deficiency problem from a range of angles, from teaching in schools, colleges and community centres right through to university research, and across employers, both business and public sector.

“If Government and civil society together succeed in reversing the persistent decline in take up of languages throughout the education pipeline, the UK could become a linguistic powerhouse: more prosperous, productive, influential, innovative, knowledgeable, culturally richer, healthier and more socially cohesive. Languages should not just be for the socially advantaged, but for everyone. We must act soon to make this a reality.”

The Government’s aim for 90 per cent of school pupils in England to take a language at GCSE level by 2025 is looking increasingly unreachable, with fewer than half doing so currently.

Universities UK International director Vivienne Stern said:  “We’re proposing a national languages strategy at a time when the UK is most in need of graduates with the skills to form invaluable international partnerships.

“International collaboration has been a vital part of the UK’s response to Covid-19, and will be a cornerstone of its recovery. If the UK government is serious about their ambitions for a Global Britain, we must upskill our graduates with the linguistic and cultural understanding to shape an outward-looking, post-Covid and post-Brexit UK.”

Thousands of modern languages students across the UK saw their planned study years abroad cancelled as a result of the pandemic and the UK’s participation in the Erasmus programme – which supports students to study in a different European country – looks deeply uncertain beyond the end of this year.