Friday, 7 January 2011

Languages: The Facts

Next Tuesday, 11th January, sees the visit to the north east by Baroness Jean Coussins for "Realising the Strategic Importance of Languages".  It's a Big Deal for us, and a lot of planning has gone into the event, under the expert leadership of Links NE Manager Ruth O'Rourke.  My job, as part of the preparation, was to put together a list of 20 facts about the current state of languages in this country.  Well, I found a few more than 20.  I thought they would be useful for other people, especially come Options time, so here they are.  If you can't be at the event itself, don't forget to watch the live streaming and follow the chat on Twitter by following the hashtag #linksne.


The number of people studying languages beyond the age of 14 has plummeted by almost 50 per cent in the last seven years to just 206,087.

Only 9,246 teenagers took a GCSE in Latin last year – and some 70 per cent of entries were from private schools.

And the proportion studying a modern language overall has fallen from 79% in 2000 to just 44% in 2009 - and when you take out the independent sector that 44% falls to 39%.

Nick Gibb, Politeia Conference address

The previous government made foreign languages an optional subject, and less than 30% of schools in the state sector now have languages as a compulsory subject to the age of 16. Many schools struggle to get even a dozen pupils through to GCSE, German has been phased out in many schools, and it is not unusual for schools to offer only one foreign language, usually French.

4.22 Alongside the number of students who secure five good GCSEs including English and mathematics, the performance tables will record the number who secure the combination of GCSEs which make up the English Baccalaureate. Those schools which succeed in giving their pupils a properly rounded academic education will be more easily identified. This will provide a powerful incentive for schools to drive the take-up of individual science subjects, humanities such as history and, especially, foreign languages.

4.23 The proportion of young people studying a modern language at GCSE has fallen from 79 per cent in 2000 to just 44 per cent in 2008 and 200958. The introduction of the English Baccalaureate will encourage many more schools to focus more strongly on ensuring every student has the chance to pursue foreign language learning to the age of 16.

Schools White Paper “The Importance of Teaching” November 2010

The bleak picture was compounded by the publication last month of an OECD survey that showed that secondary school pupils in the UK spend less time studying languages than their counterparts anywhere else in the developed world. Only 7 per cent of the lesson time of 12 to 14 year-olds is allocated to languages, which is half the amount that they spend on sciences. This puts England joint bottom of a table of 39 countries, alongside Ireland and Estonia and behind Indonesia and Mexico.

Baroness Coussins

The decline in GCSE entries from 2004 has been severe. The vast majority of state schools neither insist on a language post-14 nor even set a benchmark for take-up, as they are meant to do. As a result, languages have become one of the main causes of what the coalition Government have called the "vast gulf" between state and independent schools, with pupil take-up at key stage 4 being only 41 per cent from comprehensives, compared to 81 per cent from independent schools and 91 per cent across all selective schools.

Also, and worryingly, it would seem that a class divide is opening up; the National Centre for Languages' CILT Language Trends figures for 2009 note that last year 41 per cent of comprehensive school pupils at Key Stage 4 were entered for a modern language, compared with 91 per cent of selective school pupils and 81 per cent of independent school pupils.

Michael Worton

In England, the only time anyone is obliged to learn a language is in the first three years of secondary school. But a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that we don't spend much time doing it even then. In percentage terms, England came bottom, along with Ireland, with languages taking up around 7.25 per cent of compulsory curriculum time for 12- to 14-year-olds.

The average across the 15 EU countries that gave figures was 14 per cent. By comparison, key stage 3 pupils here spend about three times as much time learning about technology, which includes ICT, than the EU average. In addition, it has recently emerged that since plans to make foreign language teaching at primary school compulsory were shelved, provision at this level is already falling off a cliff.



Compulsory time 12- to 14-year-olds spend on languages in EU countries each year (by curriculum percentage and hours)

1. Luxembourg: 26% (237 hours)

2. Italy: 15.99% (160 hours)

3. Denmark: 17.78% (160 hours)

4. Germany: 16.97% (150.5 hours)

5. Portugal: 15.26% (134.3 hours)

6. Belgium (Fr): 12.5% (120 hours)

7. France: 12.13% (118.7 hours) - EU average: 13.59% (118.6 hours)

8. Finland: 13.94% (108.3 hours)

9. Spain: 10.11% (102.7 hours)

10. Greece: 12.38% (101.7 hours)

11. Hungary: 12.42% (83.3 hours)

12. England: 7.25% (67 hours)

13. Ireland: 7% (59.4 hours)

Data from OECD: education at a glance 2010.

I am deeply concerned that fewer and fewer students are studying languages, it not only breeds insularity, it means an integral part of the brain’s learning capacity rusts unused.

Michael Gove
6th Sept 2010

Gove said the narrowing of the range of exams being taken was "depriving young people of the things they should get from education, which is a rounded sense of how to understand this world in all its complexity and richness.

"If you don't understand science and you don't understand other cultures, you are deliberately cutting yourself off from the best that is going on in our world." Gove said he was "very attracted" by the baccalaureate systems operated by many European and Asian countries that deliver a broader educational curriculum than in England.

Michael Gove

They become non-compulsory at GCSE in 2004, and the number of children taking a language GCSE dropped from 78% in 2001 to 44% in 2009. Last year, just 26% took French and 11% took German – the numbers for both have halved since 2001 – while 8% took Spanish and 4% another language. The GCSE results published this week showed the numbers studying French down a further 5.9% and German down 4.5%, with French dropping out of the top 10 GCSEs for the first time.

In this year's A-level results, Spanish was up 4%, but the numbers taking French and German were down 3.8% and 3.4%, while other languages decreased an alarming 7.1% year on year. In 1996 18% of A-Levels were in languages, while now the figure is about 10%.

Making languages optional at 14 has had several consequences, each as predictable as it is regrettable. The first was to signal that an acquaintance with even one foreign language was a luxury rather than a necessity. The second was to reinforce the impression that languages were difficult, and so to be avoided, by pupils and schools concerned about scores and league tables. And the third was to encourage schools to scale down language teaching and divert resources elsewhere.

According to the Annual Language Trends Survey for 2009, just 41 per cent of comprehensive school pupils took a modern language at GCSE. It is selective and private schools that are keeping languages alive. At A-level, the 7.7 per cent of children in private schools are now so over-represented, that only 11 of 31 Cambridge colleges have a majority of language students from state schools.

The rot started long before a foreign language ceased to be compulsory at GCSE in 2004 - and has spread. Like fish stocks, levels are now so low that Mike Kelly, Professor of French at Southampton University and Director of the UK Support Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Study, says: “If the clock is ticking, we are getting close to midnight. We had hoped that the decline in modern languages had bottomed out, but it’s not getting better.

“Free choice has meant that languages are often set against subjects like art or drama, and are pushed further down the list of preferences. Languages are a long term business: you don’t get quick rewards. It takes three or four years to get to a decent level, whereas in other subjects you can have fun without long-term preparation.”

For the first time ever, French has slipped out of the top 10 of the most popular subjects at GCSE – the most obvious sign of the seemingly inexorable slide in languages take-up in schools, which employers say will damage British students on the international jobs market.

Fewer than one in four youngsters (22.7 per cent) now sits French, with the numbers falling from 341,604 students in 2002 to 177,618. This year alone, there was a further 5.9 per cent fall. German has slumped from 130,976 to 70,619.

Last night, exam board leaders called for a summit with ministers to try to stem the decline. The figures, released as part of this year's GCSE results, led to Andrew Hall, the chief executive of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, to claim that yesterday was "a rather sad day for languages".


The minister confirmed that tuition fees would replace government teaching grants for humanities and arts subjects, but he said that it was "very possible" that languages could be earmarked as strategically important and benefit from extra money.

Interview with David Willetts, The Guardian, 9th December 2010

6.2 Public investment will be targeted on the teaching of priority subjects.
The current system incorporates a hidden blanket subsidy to institutions. The subsidy is delivered through a block grant that does not vary significantly from year to year. Institutions do not compete for this funding – they get it automatically. Our proposals will shift the balance towards a more dynamic system of funding, with students having more choice about where they study and directing a greater share of the resources for teaching through the Student Finance Plan. There is nevertheless a strong case for additional and targeted investment by the public in certain courses. These may be courses that deliver significant social returns such as to provide skills and knowledge currently in shortage or predicted to be in the future. Students may not choose these courses because the private returns are not as high as other courses, the costs are higher and there are cheaper courses on offer, or simply because these courses are perceived as more difficult. Typically the courses that may fall into this category are courses in science and technology subjects, clinical medicine, nursing and other healthcare degrees, as well as strategically important language courses.

Lord Browne
Securing a sustainable future for higher education
An independent review of Higher Education funding & student finance.
12 October 2010


If you have language skills you really can have a successful career in many different fields. A language can add 10 – 15% to your salary and really make you stand out from the competition.

Steve Shacklock, Managing Director of Euro London Appointments, the specialist multi-lingual recruitment consultancy

But market forces clearly back teaching German. Worldwide, up to 120 million people speak it and Germany is our second largest trading partner. The CBI says employers seek German and other languages when hiring staff but that, increasingly, British applicants are losing out to candidates from elsewhere.

The ability to function in a new linguistic cultural environment is a skill highly prized by international employers, many of whom will not consider graduates without experience of living and working outside their native land

Work and Study Abroad
(Residence Abroad Project at

The growing need for people with language skills is attributable to a number of fairly recent developments, all of which have implications: changes in technology; changes in Europe; increasing internationalisation; advances in transport systems

King, A., Thomas, G. (1999) The Guide to Languages and Careers (London: CILT)

Cultural awareness is a highly important career asset. To work successfully abroad, you need to have an appreciation of ideas, traditions, customs and lifestyles which are often very different from your own

King, A., Thomas, G. (1999) The Guide to Languages and Careers (London: CILT)

Graduates in modern languages are sought after by employers not merely for their linguistic skills, but for the intellectual training which their course has provided. Linguists are trained to think structurally, they write essays which give them good practice in thinking clearly and in presenting focused arguments. Many language courses involve working cooperatively in groups and making formal presentations to an audience.. just the sort of teamwork and presentational skills which employers tell us they are looking for

King, A., Thomas, G. (1999) The Guide to Languages and Careers (London: CILT)

Language learning can enable students to communicate, share experiences and values and set in motion a whole series of both inductive and deductive processes that students need in both academic lives and future professional ones

DiNapoli, R. (2000) 'Reflection and professionalisation in language teaching: the case of 'Polylang' at the University of Westminster' in King, A. (ed) Languages and the Transfer of Skills (London: CILT), pp. 45-51

Effective use of technology needs linguistic skills - The next generation will need high levels of proficiency both as communicators and in the associated technologies. While computer-aided translation systems will speed up the process of working between languages, it is people with high levels of literacy and the experience of learning and using languages who are most likely to be able to exploit new technologies to the full

The Nuffield Languages Inquiry (2000) Languages: the next generation (London: The Nuffield Foundation)

Britons who speak a foreign language are richer, happier and are regarded as sexier than those who can speak only English

Cassidy, S. (2004) 'Speak a second language for money, happiness and sex' in The Independent, November 1, 2004  

languages are empowering, provide a passport to a more varied and adventurous life, open up a wider pool of friends and sexual partners, and slow down the ageing process. While the skills they promote tend to be personally enriching, many are also sought by employers and so enhance job prospects. Who could ask for anything more?

German was the most popular language required for jobs in September 2010, highlighting the war for talent when it comes to German speakers. That’s according to specialist language job board

Statistics of jobs posted on the site show that with 460 roles, German is by far the most sought after language, with the next most popular one being French, required for 332 jobs. Other Western European languages were also in demand, with Dutch the third most requested language, followed by Spanish and Italian which both featured 132 times on job adverts in September. The Scandinavian languages were next on the list and there was also a niche demand for the languages of Japan and China.

"There's no doubt that languages on a CV immediately make potential employees stand out, and, with the degree of globalisation we are experiencing, I think it's safe to say that multilingual graduates will be snapped up like they're going out of fashion."

Paul Robinson, global chief executive at KidsCo, which spans territories using 18 different languages


72% of UK international trade is with non-English speaking countries – but it is estimated that only one in ten British workers can speak a foreign language.

Confederation of British Industry (CBI)

As the European Commission website states: “Each year, thousands of European companies lose business and miss out on contracts as a result of their lack of language skills and intercultural competence. The challenge for internationally active firms is to integrate different organisational cultures and communicate efficiently in order to maximise performance – languages mean business!”

Research shows that Welsh firms could increase sales by 44.5% if they recruited more staff with languages skills.

The calls follow a Welsh Assembly Government action plan to boost modern foreign languages learning. The average take-up of languages at GCSE level has dropped to 27% in Wales, yet businesses in a wide range of industries need candidates with practical language skills.

Newport University deputy vice-chancellor Professor Stephen Hagen, a professor in multi-lingual business communications, has led studies showing that small to medium- sized businesses in Wales could increase export sales by 44.5% if they had stronger language skills.

Employers are increasingly looking for Mandarin and Cantonese

Among employers looking for employees with particular language skills now or expecting to do so in the next three years, French still has the edge as the most commonly mentioned language (49%). But almost equally in demand are staff who speak Mandarin or Cantonese to cope with the rapid rise of Chinese economic activity and trade. Spanish is sought after by a third (32%) of employers looking to develop trade links not just with Spain but importantly the emerging markets of South America. A significant number of employers (19%) are looking for staff with Arabic skills for doing business with one of the most energy- rich regions of the world.

CBI Education and Skills Survey 2010

English alone will not sustain word-class excellence - operating successfully in a highly competitive world economy and maintaining world-class standards involve more than muddling through in the short term and include as a minimum the acquisition of the range of skills which our competitors offer. Given that so many people all over the world now speak, or are learning English, knowledge of English no longer confers an automatic advantage on the British workforce

The Nuffield Languages Inquiry (2000) Languages: the next generation (London: The Nuffield Foundation)

Across Europe, language skills are still very much in demand and a recent survey commissioned by the European Commission identified a clear link between languages and export success. While English is a key language to gaining access to export markets, the survey results suggested that the picture was far more complex than the much quoted view that English is the world language. Russian is extensively used in Eastern Europe as a lingua franca (along with German and Polish); French is used to trade in parts of Africa, and Spanish is used similarly in Latin America. It is therefore becoming increasingly apparent that candidates with one or more foreign language skills are at an advantage in the workplace and that in future, those who are not multilingual may struggle at the top of the employment market. In fact a recent poll of 500 companies, conducted for CILT, the National Centre for Languages, revealed that one in four employers felt that the ability to speak a second language would give a candidate the edge when applying for a job.

European Hiring Trends – Autumn/Winter 2010
Euro London Appointments

we are also finding that the Euro/Sterling exchange rate is no longer attracting foreign nationals to seek employment in the UK.

European Hiring Trends – Autumn/Winter 2010
Euro London Appointments


"Anyone who can clinch a deal in Argentina because of a grasp of Spanish, give directions to an Italian family visiting a tourist information office in the Lake District or work with a Chinese sporting delegation in London for the Olympics, will be of immense value to business and Britain.

"We must change our cultural attitude: we are an island race but must embrace the world and speak its languages if we want to be in the pole position for business.

Sir Digby Jones, CBI chief

The language of business

Language skills are increasingly important in a globalised economy. Linguistic proficiency helps firms to consolidate their relationships with existing overseas trading partners and develop contacts in new markets. Most employers (65%) are looking for conversational ability – rather than fluency – to help break the ice with customers or suppliers. Businesses looking for language skills are still seeking traditional European languages such as French (49%), but employers are also increasingly looking further afield with increased demand for Mandarin/Cantonese (44%).

CBI Education and Skills Survey 2010  

The combination of an increasingly global economy and heightened cultural sensitivities means new demands on many people at work. The education system has a major part to play in preparing young people for work, and teaching foreign languages can help. But over two thirds of employers (71%) are not satisfied with the foreign language skills of young people and over half (55%) perceive shortfalls in their international cultural awareness.

CBI/EDI Education and Skills Survey 2010

Key findings

• While only a small proportion of firms (4%) are certain they have lost business as a result of inadequate language skills, the true figure could be much higher as 17% of respondents said they did not know

• Most employers (65%) are looking for conversational ability – rather than fluency – to help break the ice with customers or suppliers and as part of wider cultural understanding

• Those able to communicate in Mandarin/Cantonese are now as much in demand as those with skills in the traditional major European languages of French and German.

CBI/EDI Education and Skills Survey 2010

A global market necessitates language skills

In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, UK firms need staff who can communicate in foreign languages. English has become the international language of business – in itself a real benefit for the UK – but there are enormous advantages for British businesses if some employees have the language skills to communicate with suppliers, customers and officials in their own tongue. With many businesses developing links in China, India, Russia, Brazil and other emerging economies, they recognise the value of employees who understand the culture and can operate effectively in the different business environments of these countries – and an understanding of the language is often a crucial first step. Assessing the scale of business problems caused by the linguistic shortfalls in their workforces is a difficult exercise, but at least 4% of firms know they have missed out on opportunities as a consequence of inadequate language skills. A further 17% don’t know whether they have lost business or not, so the scale of problem may well be considerable.

CBI/EDI Education and Skills Survey 2010

Conversational skills more in demand than fluency

Companies particularly value an employee’s ability to communicate conversationally with potential business partners, customers or clients in their own language (Exhibit 55): this can help break the ice, deepen cultural understanding, and open access to new markets. Two thirds of respondents (65%) say that when recruiting for foreign language skills, they normally require quire a conversational level of skills rather than full fluency.

CBI/EDI Education and Skills Survey 2010


At the heart of this must unashamedly be the argument that intercultural competence is not only one of the essential skills for modern life and work, but is in itself exciting, pleasurable and rewarding.

Much is rightly made today of the importance of helping all of our young people to become global citizens, by which we mean that they will learn to think in new, critical and creative ways; that they will be committed to ethical and socially responsible behaviour; that they will be ready to embrace professional mobility; that they will assume leadership roles, sometimes very locally within the family or a group of friends and sometimes nationally or even internationally; that they will embrace entrepreneurship and embrace and develop their own ability to innovate; and, crucially, that they will be not only sensitive to cultural difference, but also able to appreciate and mobilise its value in intellectual and social contexts.

This is a new form of citizenship that has no global governing body, but whose importance is recognised by many national and regional governments. Global citizenship is marked by a sense of responsibility, both individual and collective, and by a commitment to living in and with difference, in all of its complexity, ambiguity and challenge. This is the fundamental reason why we should encourage as many people as possible, both young and old, to learn a language, since this involves encounters and learning about a different culture as well as a different linguistic system, and thereby enables an understanding of just how much sameness and difference are bound up together and define each other. Without some knowledge of another language, we remain locked into a single system.

Michael Worton

To learn another language is, quite simply and profoundly, one of the best ways of learning to recognise the world and to see how others and otherness inhabit it. It is an education in difference as a pathway to understanding how to contribute to integration and fellowship (or global citizenship).

Michael Worton

Second, there are strong cultural arguments for learning a foreign language. Education is not just about picking up skills and knowledge that will be useful in the job market, though all too often it is presented that way nowadays. For in addition to such immediately practical matters, it is surely also about understanding our place in the world - geographically, historically, politically, culturally and so on; and about understanding how our world works - hence science, engineering, etc. Foreign languages fit into this broader picture of education because they provide access to the culture and history of other countries, through learning to read their literature, their newspapers, or whatever.

Third, I think there are also huge intellectual arguments for learning foreign languages, which I would sum up briefly as follows: (a) it's hard to get far with a foreign language without learning a good deal of grammar, and that can have enormously beneficial effects on the learner's ability to think and write in English; (b) a little like mathematics, foreign language learning necessarily involves discipline, logic and accuracy - you have to get things right, and can't get away with waffle and general chat as is apparently possible in some other subjects. So as mental training, learning a foreign language is an excellent vehicle. And (c) because learning a foreign language is perceived in the UK to be 'difficult', successfully doing so and achieving a good level has to have beneficial effects on the learner's self confidence, something that is invaluable when doing almost anything else in life that is difficult and demanding.

Professor Paul Hare, Heriot-Watt University

Canadian scientists have found astonishing evidence that the lifelong use of two languages can help delay the onset of dementia symptoms by four years compared to people who are monolingual.

January 2007


  1. Super. Smashing. Great. Good job Clare and thanks for sharing.

  2. Jan Lewandowski08 January, 2011 07:48

    This is a monumental piece of research; well done for drawing together all the threads!
    I will bring it to the attention of advisers etc. in the Eastern region; though we are all well aware of the situation, its good to have all this detail in one place.
    Good luck with the conference next week! Jan

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