UK universities are witnessing a startling decline in the number of students studying modern foreign languages, recent government statistics show.
The figures, compiled by UCAS, indicate an overall drop of between 12 and 14 percent in the number of students accepted to study modern foreign languages at British universities between the 2011 and 2012 admissions cycles.
The marked drop in language students coincides with an overall decline of 210,670 in the total number of students applying to university, attributed by many to the implementation of the government’s new tuition fee regime, which saw fees nearly triple in many cases from £3,290 to £9,000 per year. But the overall drop in applicants represents a change of only 7.4%, as compared with a 13.4% drop in language applicants.
The latest figures illustrate the continuation of a long-standing trend. Decreasing demand for language courses has led many universities to reduce the range of languages they teach, or to shutter their language departments entirely: last month, the Guardian reported that between 1998 and 2013, the number of universities offering single honours language degrees dropped from 93 to 56 – a change of 40%.
Prof. Katrin Kohl, fellow in German at Jesus College and a founder of the Oxford German Network, explained why modern language courses in the UK are particularly vulnerable: “Wherever English is spoken as a native language, there is a certain problem of motivation for students when it comes to foreign languages. English is now a global lingua franca, and most English speakers can get by quite happily in other countries just speaking English. Students don’t see why studying other languages might be useful.”
Institutional pressures may also be having an effect on students’ decisions not to pursue languages. In 2004, the Blair government abolished the requirement that all pupils study at least one foreign language to GCSE level, which meant fewer pupils chose to pursue languages to A-level.
Yet even those students who do study languages at A-level can face especial difficulty. “It is well-known that there is a problem of severe grading when it comes to language A-levels,” Kohl said. “The fact is that fewer A*s are awarded in languages than in other subjects.” This disparity can discourage students from pursuing modern languages, which can seen to be risky or overly difficult subject choices.
Oxford itself seems to have escaped the broader trend of decline in demand. The university has not experienced a comparable long-term drop in language applicants, but instead has seen a very minor on-average increase (1.1%) in applications to language courses between 2007 and 2012, despite a 5% drop between 2011 and 2012. This may not be cause for celebration, however. Kohl told the Guardian, “We’re reaching the position where language competence is a privilege of the privately educated elite, and language degrees are restricted to Russell Group Universities.”
This is troubling, she says, because studying languages confers important personal and social benefits: “learning another language is intellectually enjoyable, but it also gives us first-hand awareness of cultural diversity, enhances our ability to use language more generally, and benefits us cognitively in particular ways, in the same way studying music or maths does.”
Anna Berger, a first-year French and Philosophy student at Magdalen, echoed these sentiments, saying she chose to study French because it offers “an alternative way to see the world.” Not only that, studying a language allows one to explore a breadth of different topics: “In languages you try to have an overview on one culture, so [you] have the possibility to work interdisciplinarily.” This gives direct access to “the best ingredients to a humanistic world view: literature, art, history, philosophy,” Berger said.
Kohl suggested a number of possible ways to increase interest in language study. She underlined that the problem of severe grading ought to be addressed immediately, and that “dull” school syllabi should be “revisited”. She also suggested that the government should proactively support and invest in language teaching, which can be especially expensive, both at school and university levels. Through the Oxford German Network, Kohl seeks to promote interest in German language and culture in the local community by establishing links between the University and local schools, organisations, and businesses.