UK still suffers trips of the tongues

August 29, 2013

Your editorial “A timely look under the bonnet” (22 August) is right to draw attention to the issue of language degrees, but one of the figures was inaccurate. As of 23 August, the number of students starting a language degree was not down by 13 per cent but by less than 0.5 per cent.

At A level, overall numbers fell by 4.5 per cent, while the move away from French and German and towards Spanish, Portuguese and other languages continues. At GCSE level, the English Baccalaureate effect meant that language entries were up by 15.5 per cent, and once again Spanish is the main beneficiary, showing a 25.8 per cent increase.

Nevertheless, the picture remains worrying for two reasons. First, UK exporters are under-performing because they are over-reliant on English-speaking markets. This costs the British economy billions of pounds a year in lost revenue. Second, languages are at risk of becoming the preserve of a social elite, taught only at high-achieving schools that advise their pupils to target only the most selective universities, and thus accelerating the concentration of provision in ever fewer institutions.

The university language community is responding actively. We are stimulating interest and demand through Routes into Languages, a programme supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England that involves 80 universities. We are devising new curricula and means of delivery that can attract a new type of student into language study. And we are stressing that foreign languages, like literacy and numeracy, are skills that everyone needs to possess. The number of students in UK universities who include one or more languages in their degree programme is rising fast as they recognise that graduates offering language skills, whether or not they have followed a specialist language degree, are in high demand and can enter a wide range of rewarding international careers.

Jim Coleman
Chair
University Council of Modern Languages

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