Poorer children are being left behind when it comes to learning languages

The UK has a reputation (rightly or wrongly) for struggling to learn foreign languages. A recent survey showed, for example, that 62% of the population can't speak any other language apart from English.

Part of the issue is that language learning in schools faces huge challenges. GCSE uptake remains stuck at around 50% and the number of students taking an A-level in a language has declined by about a third since 1996. And the latest Language Trends Survey, which looks at uptake of language learning across the UK, makes for worrying reading.

Headlines have focused on the north-south divide in the number of learners taking a languages GCSE – with the north generally having lower levels of uptake than the south of the country. But a closer look suggests the situation is more complex – with the problem going well beyond GCSE numbers.

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For a start, the survey by the British Council shows there are big differences in the level of access learners have to languages at all stages of education. This can be seen in the fact that primary schools with a higher percentage of learners eligible for free school meals are more likely to allocate less time to language teaching – in many cases under 30 minutes a week. And we know from research we conducted at the University of Reading, the amount of time spent teaching languages at primary level influences learners’ progress when they get to secondary school.


The survey also shows that at secondary school, pupils of middle and lower attainment levels are being put off taking a language because of fears they will not get the high grades that matter so much to schools. And again here the link between socioeconomic factors and take-up is clear – the higher the proportion of learners eligible for free school meals, the lower a school’s level of uptake for languages in years nine, ten and eleven.

For some learners, this means they have minimal language learning at primary school, and then very possibly only two years of it at secondary school.

Depressingly, the report summarises the situation as:

Pupils in schools with the highest levels of economic disadvantage are more likely to be withdrawn from lessons in Key Stage 3, more likely to be allowed to drop languages after only two years, less likely to be able to study more than one foreign language, and less likely to take a language to GCSE.

Language gap

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In many respects the “divide” between who gets to study a language is less a geographical one, and more about inequalities which stem from broader socioeconomic factors – which happen to coincide by and large with geography.

It is notable that more prosperous areas of the north – such as York – have relatively high numbers of learners taking languages GCSE, while the Isle of Wight – which is in the south but is also less advantaged economically – has one of the lowest.

In this sense, the findings of the Language Trends Survey echo those of previous studies, which show that languages are one of the subjects least likely to be studied by less advantaged pupils.

The most worrying aspect of all this is that the education system seems to be on the brink of engaging in a form of social engineering, by limiting access to the curriculum for certain groups of learners.

Boost to creativity

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This is massively shortsighted, because learning another language has so many potential benefits – including improved cognitive functioning, a more tolerant outlook, social and communication skills as well as linguistic abilities that are valued by employers – which can potentially lead to better salary prospects.

But instead of encouragement to study these subjects, large numbers of learners – from some of the least advantaged groups in society – are being excluded from language study. And this narrowing of the curriculum is also being seen with the creative arts, as schools strive towards accountability measures that do not fully value such subjects.

This is why our latest research is looking at how exposing students studying French and German to poetry, drama and creative writing impacts their experience of language learning.

We hope this form of teaching may affect not only how well learners can understand and use languages, but also help students to feel more positive about language learning and their own levels of creativity.

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And who knows, by making more visible the extent to which languages can enrich the education of young people, it may just help to halt the decline of language learning across the UK.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation

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