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The Declining Interest in Foreign Languages Amongst Young People in the UK

The Declining Interest in Foreign Languages Amongst Young People in the UK

August in the United Kingdom always brings with it A-level and GCSE results and the inevitable discussions that arise from a dissection of the statistics. This year the discussion has centred around the positive news that more teenagers have chosen to study sciences, along with the more worrying news of a continuing decline in the uptake of modern foreign languages. I was struck by the reaction of a friend of mine, a freelance translator of French and German, who commented: “I don’t know whether to be disappointed that fewer and fewer youngsters are taking languages, or relieved that there will be less competition for me in the future!”.

While fewer and fewer teenagers are opting to take French and German both at GCSE and A-level, there has been an increase in GCSE entries for Spanish, Chinese, Polish and Portuguese. Confronted with this information, it is easy to assume that pupils now have a wider choice of languages to learn and are, therefore, diversifying more than previously. To some extent this is true: thanks to certain schools being upgraded to specialist Language colleges. However, the overall picture still points to teenagers continuing to lose interest in studying foreign languages.

This news is of particular concern given that French and German are both important languages in the European Institutions, and knowledge of these languages is often necessary in order to work for them. Over the past year, journalists have reported that Britain is statistically under-represented among the EU institutions. Last year only 1.5% of applications to the EU’s entrance exam were British, suggesting a notable lack of interest on the part of our citizens. To make matters worse, more than 40% of UK nationals working in EU institutions are set to retire over the next 10 years, meaning we stand to be even more underrepresented if current trends continue.

Not overly enthused by European politics? Don’t underestimate the opportunities that lie in working in the private sector. The German economy in particular is resisting the difficult economic climate better than its neighbours, and much of what it produces are engineering products such as cars, machinery, metals and chemical goods. It seems that Engineering students in Spain are decamping to Germany to work in large numbers, because that is where they stand the best chance of gaining employment (as unemployment rates in Spain reach an all-time high). And over here in the UK, the language services industry is lacking talented German technical translators to cope with demand. As such, more needs to be done to encourage our students to take up German. Part of the current problem may lie in the fact that German is seen as a difficult language compared to other modern foreign languages of Latin origin (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese), and with schools under pressure to improve their pass rates, students are steered towards ‘easier’ subjects.

Awareness should be raised amongst younger students of the career opportunities that lie in studying languages that are perceived to be more difficult, and this includes Chinese. As someone who has studied French, Spanish and now Portuguese, I can’t help but feel slightly hypocritical in saying others should study German, Chinese or say Swedish, but given today’s competitive job market, it is the kind of advice that I think teenagers should be hearing.

Journalists and education authorities all agree that we must reverse the decline in the uptake of languages, so now it is also time for schools, parents and businesses to promote the importance of language-learning to teenagers. Otherwise our school and university leavers will only continue to miss out on valuable job opportunities both at home and abroad.