By Jenny Scott, Director, British Council, Wales

08 October 2020 - 11:22

Boy and globe


The number of pupils in Wales studying a modern foreign language (MFL) continues to decline. Jenny Scott makes the case for international language learning and looks at how we can increase the number of people choosing to learn an international language.

Getting the message across that language learning is important

Despite a plethora of evidence over the years, highlighting the many and diverse benefits of learning and speaking another language for individuals, businesses and the economy, there’s a disconnect – and it still feels like the message isn’t getting through.  

We know that an ability to communicate in an international language makes young people more inter-culturally skilled, more likely to take up international opportunities and, as a result have better career prospects.  Studies have also shown that there is a direct correlation between learning other languages and higher achievement in other subjects, including maths.

You would think that when the Confederation of British Industry reported that almost two thirds of businesses value skills in foreign languages among employees, and 62% are dissatisfied with school/college leavers’ language skills and international cultural awareness, that this might make a difference. However, businesses rank foreign language capability bottom in terms of graduate recruitment factors.    

More evidence published in a 2019 All-Party Parliamentary Group report on Modern Languages noted that “SMEs who deploy languages report 43% higher export/turnover ratios” and that the “UK loses 3.5% of GDP in lost business opportunities due to our poor language skills”.   With UK GDP at £2.2 trillion in 2019, that 3.5% equates to £77 billion. 

Improved education achievements, career prospects, health and economy - and we haven’t yet looked at the wider social benefits of learning a language, such as understanding another culture and gaining a different perspective on another country as well as your own.  

The decline of modern foreign language learning

The numbers tell their own tale.  Over the last 20 years we’ve seen a particularly sharp drop in Wales with a 53% fall in GCSE and a 48% fall in A level entries - and the rate of decline is increasing.   And in 2020, despite French and German GCSE entries stabilising slightly, overall MFL numbers decreased by almost 10% compared to 2019 and A levels saw a 16% decrease.  

There are many reasons put forward for this decline and the reluctance to learn languages.  The global dominance of English (why learn another language?) or perhaps the negative influence of the UK withdrawal from the EU.  A crowded curriculum and priority given to other subjects, for example STEM, is often cited, as is the perception that languages are more difficult and therefore pupils, parents and schools don’t want to risk lower grades.

One of the more depressing reasons for the decline is that pupils may no longer be able to study the language they want in their school or college as language programmes are cut.  We know from our previous Language Trends research that the vast majority of post-16 MFL courses run with small numbers, making them financially less viable.  

Education policy makers are starting to take notice                 

Evidence of the tangible benefits of leaning languages is there – and policy makers are slowly taking notice.  

The Scottish Government adopted an ambitious policy on languages, based on the European ‘mother tongue plus two’ model.   The Department of Education for England has made studying a language compulsory at Key Stage 2 and 3, and study of a language is included in the English Baccalaureate, with the aim of having 90% of all pupils studying a language by 2025.   And improving language take up isn’t just confined to the UK, with the Republic of Ireland launching its Languages Connect strategy in 2017. 

In 2022, Wales will implement its new curriculum.  While this has the potential to improve the way languages are taught, teachers responding to our Language Trends Wales 2019 survey were not optimistic about the prospects for MFL, citing the focus on English and Welsh.  They also said there is a need for a lot more training and support at primary level.     

There are ways we can halt the decline in MFL

Ideally, there would be a simple, straightforward approach that governments, policymakers, schools, parents, pupils and employers would buy into collectively.  

International languages would be on the curriculum from year one of primary school and all pupils would take some form of language qualification at age 16.  School leaders and policymakers would understand and value the cross-subject benefits of learning a language and its role in raising attainment. 

Employers would be clear about the skills and staff they need.  This includes not only the ability to speak another language, but staff who have the capability to build relationships and demonstrate the cultural awareness skills and experience that often come with learning a language. 

Collective action and a joined-up approach are needed.  A coalition of organisations, including the British Council, has joined the British Academy’s call for a UK-wide national languages strategy, calling for attitudinal change as well as the opportunity to learn or progress in a language at any stage of life.   

We also see an element of this collective approach with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR); a scheme so simple and successful that it has been adopted and adapted by countries around the world, such as Canada. 

This approach understands the multitude of complex factors that are contributing to the decline of MFL learning in schools and brings a common basis for language learning - focusing on what pupils can actually do in a language, rather than qualifications.  Also, at a time when Wales is looking to develop its own examinations, CFER enables the recognition of language qualifications both nationally and internationally.

While I should perhaps end this blog with a statement about how languages can play a key role in Wales’ future international ambitions – I won’t.  I will say that one of the highlights for me this year was the #WhattheBritishCouncilhasdone campaign launched by the University Council of Modern Languages.   Reading the wonderful stories of how learning a language had transformed people’s lives was really uplifting – and just the reminder I needed about why we do what we do.  So thank you to all those who contributed – you made my day!  

Photo of Jenny Scott

Jenny Scott

Director, British Council, Wales

Language Trends Wales