A lesson for us all: language expert examines problems facing educators as statistics show another drop in numbers of A level students studying modern European languages

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Last week’s A level results prompted more of the now-annual laments about the state of language learning in the UK. David Wilkins, head of UIC London language school, says that a new approach to foreign language teaching is needed in order to reverse a long-term downward trend.

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"Economic and immigration factors have a major influence on what languages young people consider important to boost their employment prospects and earning potential. At the moment, therefore, it is natural that they are looking beyond the troubled EU.”

“I’ve seen talk in some quarters of a European language crisis to match that of the fiscal crisis, but there are some silver linings to the cloud. Those linings give us some insight into the importance of languages, from the perspective of students, universities, the labour market and society in general.”

For a start, said David, students are not shunning all languages: while entries for French, German and even Spanish A levels dropped, entries for Polish, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian and Japanese all rose, albeit moderately. “Multiculturalism, increased travel opportunities and the internet all mean that people have more information about the world and more varied experiences at a younger age,” said David. “Economic and immigration factors have a major influence on what languages young people consider important to boost their employment prospects and earning potential. At the moment, therefore, it is natural that they are looking beyond the troubled EU.”

Students are also picking up on signals coming from the education system itself. Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, said that universities could boost language take-up by sending strong messages that they want students with language qualifications. Maths and science subjects have increased in due to similar messaging – maths, biology, psychology, chemistry and physics all featured in the 10 most popular subjects this year.

But the approach needs to change well before university level, argued David. “When the Labour government decided to make learning a language optional rather than compulsory for teenagers, back in 2004, it was obvious that many would choose not to study something that they found academically challenging.” Moves to address the situation by introducing compulsory language study for primary school children are interesting – “but it will only work if we address the whole strategy, starting with why people learn languages in the first place.”

“If we want students in England to have language skills in order to go to university and read literature in its original language, then we already have a perfectly good system. If, however, we want our young people to use languages to travel, to enjoy and, above all to live, then our system and our approach absolutely needs to change. At UIC London our motto is ‘languages for living’ – and I believe the Government would do well to look at how specialist language schools deliver languages for living and borrow from us in order to improve mainstream provision and success.”

About UIC London
UIC London is a British Council accredited English school offering modern facilities, experienced staff and a mature, social environment. As well as being a ‘highly trusted sponsor’ of the UK Border Agency the school has won both the Star Award (voted on by travel agents worldwide) and the British Council Award for Innovation.

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David Wilkins
UIC London
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