By Claire Gorrara, Chair of the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) and Professor of French, Cardiff University

28 September 2020 - 14:53

Word cloud of the word 'Welcome' in many languages
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Studying modern languages in schools in Wales is repeatedly reported to be ‘in crisis’. Since British Council Wales began its Language Trends Wales reports in 2015, the story is one of year on year decline. 

In this year’s report it notes that ‘the number of GCSE entries for modern language subjects in 2020 has decreased by almost 10% compared to 2019. This follows a year on year trend which has seen numbers fall by 64% since 2002’. 

The ‘crisis’ in language learning is not unique to Wales

This picture is by no means unique to Wales. The ‘crisis’ in language learning in the UK is highlighted in the title of a January 2020 report from the Higher Education Policy Institute.

But how helpful are these headline stories of language learning doom and gloom? Away from this narrative of decline in the formal instruction of the three major European languages (German, French and Spanish) in schools, other stories emerge. 

Census data shows that Wales and the UK are richly multilingual countries

Wales and the UK are richly multilingual nations. Census data shows us that there are large and well-established communities of speakers of non-UK indigenous languages, the most numerous speakers being Polish, Punjabi and Urdu. We have always been a historically multilingual country, from the very inception of the notion of the British Isles as a common people. 

As Professor Neil Kenny writes in the British Academy Review (Spring, 2019: 13), ‘the UK has the potential to be a linguistic powerhouse’. The question is how can we mobilise this largely untapped linguistic resource today?

Support all learners to become global citizens able to speak other languages

One way of activating our multilingual richness is to bring languages into the classroom in new ways that fire up the curiosity of learners in Wales. To support the new Curriculum for Wales, the Welsh Government has revised its Global Futures (2020-22) modern languages strategy to place multilingualism at the core. 

Published in August 2020, the extended strategy has an overarching mission to ‘support all learners to become global citizens, able to speak to people in other languages, to understand and appreciate their own and other cultures and to be able to have access to a wide range of opportunities both here in Wales and across the world’ (https://gov.wales/global-futures-plan-improve-and-promote-modern-foreign...). 

Primary schools to introduce at least one international language

Such a vision translates into strategic actions that commit primary schools to introduce at least one ‘international language’ into the Curriculum for Wales from 2022 and an explicit pledge to tackle the ‘marginalisation of languages’. The strategy acknowledges the significance of language indifference on the part of parents and younger learners and the lack of ‘buy-in’ from senior leaders, the people who can ensure a language-rich environment thrives in our schools.

The paradox of multilingualism in Wales, as in other parts of the UK, is that languages are everywhere and nowhere. We are surrounded by ‘creative multilingualism’ – from the sounds and signage on our streets, to the food we eat, to the online games we play and the films and TV series we watch. We need to work harder to make that multilingualism visible and to value it for the other worlds it opens for us and our children. 

Professor Claire Gorrara

Claire Gorrara

Chair of the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) and Professor of French, Cardiff University