Is Britain becoming a nation of monoglots?

You may well have spotted a photograph or two in the British press last week of the more photogenic examples the latest cohort of A-level students literally jumping for joy as they received their exam results. However, whilst the outlook for many students was bright, with their place secured on their chosen university course, the future of modern language education in the UK looked considerably less rosy.

Following the publishing of last weeks A-level results, a major enquiry has been launched after it was confirmed that the number of British teenagers taking modern foreign languages at A-level has plummeted, reaching its lowest level in more than a decade. This is set to deepen the crisis faced by the UK’s university language departments: the Guardian recently reported that the number of universities offering modern languages degrees has plunged from 105 in 2000 to 62 at the start of this academic year, with 40% likely to close within a decade. Following the rise in university tuition fees last year, applications to study non-European languages fell by 21.5%, the most severe decline of all subjects. Ouch!

The languages reported to have experienced the biggest decline in student numbers are French and German, both of which have lost half their students in the past decade. Spanish was the only language to buck the trend – up 4% on last year.

Neil Bentley, deputy director general of the Confederation of British Industry, commented to the Telegraph:

“It’s very worrying to see an accelerating drop-off in French and German entries. Employers still rank both above any other modern language. Despite the economic hardship in the EU, it remains the UK’s biggest export market.”

As many of our bi-lingual readers will attest, having a second language can be a big employability boost. Not only do your language skills have the potential to broaden your career horizons and be of practical use in your chosen occupation, they can also help communicate a capacity for disciplined learning to a potential employer.

The inevitable reduction in the number of multilingual graduates entering the job market is a serious concern for our industry. Demand for translation and localization services is set to increase as brands and companies continue to extend their international reach and with it, the demand for services of multilingual translation and localization specialists.

So why is there such a drop in students actively wanting to learn a second language?

Do students simply think they don’t need to? With almost one billion people around the world estimated to speak English, is the assumption that as an English speaker you’ll get by almost anywhere? Is English being treated as the new Latin? Guardian columnist David Bellos notes that

“the roman empire was populated almost exclusively by bi-linguals… that English speakers need nothing else is then very much a modern invention, with no precedent in older civilisations.”

In this digital age, is there an increasing reliance on translation-enabling technology? Recently, the BBC broadcast a program asking provocatively, ‘Why learn a language when you could just download one?’

At the higher education level particularly, could it be an issue of cost? It’s little surprise that there has been a drop off in take-up of university places on modern language courses taking into account yearly fees of up to £9,000 per year at British universities. Whilst there are multiple ways of learning languages (evening courses and the like) is there any substitution for the quality and intensity of degree-level language education and the often excellent opportunities for cultural immersion offered as part of the course?

Once more, this latest dishing of bad news forces us to ask: are our British schools letting our youngsters down? We believe so. You can read more of our thoughts on this in a previous post. As learning a language only gets harder with age, there’s no better time and place to start than at school. As Conversis MD Gary Muddyman has said previously,

“After the three R’s, I struggle to see what can be more beneficial, practical and intellectually stimulating than learning a foreign language.”

Read more:

Guardian Language teaching crisis as 40% of university departments face closure, August 2013

BBC Will the web’s translation tech make us multilingual? Why learn a language when you could just download one?, August 2013

Guardian Comment Is Free A-level languages: is Britain at risk of turning into a nation of monoglots?, August 2013

Related posts on The Conversation:

Modern languages should be compulsory in our secondary schools, July 2012

Are British schools letting our youngsters down? April 2012

Please like & share:

One thought on “Is Britain becoming a nation of monoglots?

  1. Amazing considering the number of head teachers talking of ‘100 first languages spoken in our school’. Perhaps there’s a link?

Comments are closed.