Mandarin is the best language for pupils to learn in today’s world, while French lags far behind in importance, according to girls’ school headteachers cited in a poll published today.
The survey, conducted by the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA), which represents independent all-girls schools across the UK, found that 38 per cent of heads feel Mandarin is the most important modern language for pupils to learn.
This is despite pupils' quicker progress in European languages, according to a language expert, who also argues that more job opportunities area available for French and German speakers.
Spanish was the second most popular option among the headteachers polled, with 31 per cent choosing it as the most important language, while 7.1 per cent chose Russian.
Just 2 per cent of those surveyed said French is the most important language for pupils to know.
A further 21 per cent selected “other”, with many commenting that any modern foreign language is useful for pupils.
Jane Prescott, head of the GSA and headmistress of Portsmouth High School, said: “Foreign language take-up in the UK is low, and has not improved in recent years.
“In the UK, we have not necessarily been mindful of the fact that we have had this drop-off. We perhaps need to look at our European neighbours and how they teach languages from quite an early age. In my own school we actually teach French from nursery.”
Ms Prescott told Tes that the “demise of French” could be attributed to poor exam results in the subject.
In November, the exams regulator Ofqual announced that GCSE French and German grading would be brought into line with Spanish, as historically these subjects had been graded more severely.
“It’s been much harder than other subjects,” Ms Prescott said of French.
“But any language is good – once you know one foreign language, you can learn more.”
She said schools were keen for pupils to learn Mandarin for future careers in business, while Spanish remained popular owing to how widely spoken it is around the world.
There are 477 million native Spanish speakers worldwide, while French is estimated to have 80m native speakers, although 190m people speak French as a second language.
But Teresa Tinsley, who wrote the British Council’s 2019 Language Trends report, said schools needed to consider the practicalities of opting for Mandarin over languages spoken by geographical neighbours, such as French and German.
“If you ask them [heads] what language is going to be useful, that’s one question, but if you ask them which language logistically they can make most progress in, you’ll get a different answer. We don’t have a supply of Mandarin teachers," she said.
"In terms of how much it helps you understand English culture within a European context and that sort of thing, you just can’t make the same progress – it’s a completely different experience.
“If you look at the job opportunities, French and German are always way ahead in jobs advertised – they are countries on our doorstep, we will always have a closer relationship with them. Our history is rooted in those countries, particularly France. If you turned the education system over to Asian languages, you’d be missing out on an awful lot.”
Ms Tinsley said she supported the introduction of Mandarin to give pupils more variety in the languages they learnt, but said European languages tended to support pupils’ literacy in English, which could not be said of Asian languages.
The poll also found that heads believe that of the three most important things schools can do “to prepare children for a global world”, the most popular option is to “increase opportunities for shared experiences for children from different cultures and countries”, with 88 per cent of heads selecting this.
The survey findings represent the views of 43 heads of GSA schools who responded to the poll.