Curriculum - Unlock the language barrier

11th December 2009 at 00:00
Foreign languages in secondaries and beyond have slumped since compulsory post-14 study was abolished. But with 92 per cent of primaries now offering a language, the linguistic specialists of tomorrow may be en route. Yojana Sharma reports

Forget the debate about the value of vocational versus "academic" education: one of the best-kept secrets is that language graduates are among the highest earners three to four years after university, behind only medicine, architecture and law, and ahead of engineers and chemistry graduates, according to official statistics.

But is this message getting through? According to the recently published Worton Review on languages in higher education, young people lose on some of the best jobs later in life because schools do not provide appropriate advice on foreign language options.

Institutions inside the European Union, the world's biggest employer of linguists for translation and interpretation services, are crying out for British-born graduates with two foreign languages, even reportedly cancelling meetings because of a dire shortage.

Contrary to popular belief, translation and teaching are not the only career paths. As the ability to understand other cultures has become a key business skill, and the financial sector, for example, hires a large number of languages graduates. Meanwhile, language skills are often a tie-breaker when two equally good candidates are considered for a job.

"Exposure to a foreign language has become inevitable at a certain level. Given the way the world is moving, if your friends and rivals have these skills you are putting yourself at a disadvantage by not having them," said Tim Connell, vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

The employers' organisation the CBI recently reported that more than a third of employers specifically recruit people for their language skills, yet they are increasingly looking outside Britain to meet their needs. "If we are not careful, all the best posts will go to other nationalities," says Professor Connell. "It's a very simple message: we are being left behind."

Few schools realise that, through the Lisbon Treaty that is about to come into force, the UK has signed up to the EU's target of two foreign languages in schools. "It is an aspiration and few countries have delivered on it yet," says national director of languages Lid King. But he admits, "we have a particular challenge".

Three out of five pupils in other EU countries study at least two foreign languages in upper secondary. But in the UK, fewer than half of pupils still study any language at all at this stage. Even if English is taken out of the equation as a "basic skill" and lingua franca for non-English speakers rather than a native language, in a number of countries including the Netherlands, Finland and Czech Republic, all pupils learn two or more foreign languages in addition to English.

The result is that young Britons are leaving school among the most monoglot in Europe - and possibly beyond. Even in the US, more than 34 million people speak fluent Spanish alongside English.

Most language academics agree that the problem is in secondary schools. Foreign language entries at GCSE have slumped by 30 per cent since 2004, when the Government ended compulsory languages after the age of 14. The Worton Review concludes that "the absence of foreign languages from the national curriculum after the age of 14 sends out a powerful negative message, especially in comparison with other countries". It also describes the Government's decision to drop the mandatory GCSE as "over-rapid and ill-thought through".

In England, the Government prefers to invest in languages at primary level. Already 92 per cent of primaries offer a language compared with just 20 per cent in 2001, but only 44 per cent of pupils continue a language to GCSE, down from three-quarters of pupils in 2000. In Scotland, languages are also no longer obligatory beyond 14, but many schools continue to push them.

"There is a sense of enjoyment of language and an understanding by primary-age children of being a global citizen and the importance of languages in the future," says Judith Masters, head of cultural networks at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.

Yet the figures show that despite the advance of primary languages, problems persist in giving primary teachers the skills to teach them and to keep pupils' enthusiasm for languages going into secondary.

"It's a long way from primary to graduate languages. There is a lot to do at secondary level so that the motivation and skills of primary aren't lost," says Teresa Tinley at the National Languages Centre, Cilt.

Dr King warns against complacency. "Primary has done very well but there is still a big challenge to really embed languages. Key stage 4 (GCSE level) is really determined by what happens at key stage 3. Age seven to 14 is a continuum," he says.

Meanwhile, the secondary education landscape has changed dramatically, with a much wider palette of options for pupils post-14. These include the new diplomas, which rarely include a language element. Languages are often regarded as difficult compared with other subjects at GCSE, so they suffer disproportionately.

A survey in the West Midlands carried out by the University of Wolverhampton found that more than half of secondary pupils had "experienced barriers or issues" with language choices, particularly timetabling clashes, subject competition and in some cases a shortage of teachers, particularly in German.

"There is demand from pupils to learn specific languages. However, schools are not always meeting this demand," says Henrietta Harnisch, director of the Language Network for Excellence at Wolverhampton. "Headteachers rarely say languages are useless but there are always other conflicting pressures, not all of them to do with languages."

Dr King does not foresee the situation returning to how it was before languages stopped being compulsory, however. "The variety of choice at secondary is inevitable and in many ways desirable, but it is one of the reasons why we can't go back to where we were before. We are not competing with other subjects but making sure we have a coherent curriculum," he says.

"The struggle nowadays is to keep even a single language going, rather than turn out the specialist linguists we need," says Professor Connell. "The real problem is that languages died in secondary school before primary languages came through." In the 1980s he was a university admissions tutor for languages. "Over half applied with two language A-levels. That is much rarer now outside private and selective schools," he says.

Only specialist language colleges are holding up with the two-language option in the state sector.

The type of school is one of the main influences on A-level language uptake, according to a survey published in August by examining body Cambridge Assessment. Independent and grammar school pupils were twice as likely to choose a language than pupils in any other type of school. Meanwhile a third of AS level language pupils do not carry on to A2.

Cilt director Kathryn Board fears that languages could end up "in the elitist bracket". But if language study in schools is in decline, there is evidence suggesting that later in life people do realise the benefit of learning another tongue.

In an annual survey of university language centres, Nick Byrne, director of the London School of Economics Language Centre, found that 65,000 pupils were learning a language voluntarily, up from 47,000 in 2003 - many more than those actually doing language degrees. "They are coming of their own accord. Demand exists and the numbers are going up," he says.

Most are continuing French, Spanish and German rather than starting languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Russian from scratch. "The popularity of French and Spanish indicates that pupils are catching up on subjects they had to drop in favour of other sixth-form options," says Mr Byrne.

The Worton Review advocated better careers guidance at an earlier age to stop pupils dropping languages too soon. But even in committed schools, this can be an uphill battle.

"A large number of youngsters want a second foreign language but don't want to commit to a full GCSE," says Andy Birkett, principal of Hele's School, a specialist language college in Plymouth, where one in five pupils takes two foreign languages to GCSE. Not all pupils want to study literature and culture but wish to combine languages with other interests, he says.

"The true double linguists tend to shine early on. But we are creating a new double linguist who wants to combine languages with, say, music. Languages are a tool that enables them to do something else," Mr Birkett says. In particular, work experience using languages is a huge motivator.

The Government has a number of initiatives such as Routes into Languages, which has sent 400 university language students into schools as "language ambassadors".

"There have been tangible benefits and a big increase in the numbers doing GCSE where the Routes consortia worked to motivate pupils and support teachers," explains Mike Kelly, professor of French at Southampton University and director of the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies. He believes that such initiatives have helped to arrest the decline in GCSE languages.

Another initiative, Business Language Champions (BLC), helps schools partner businesses. After a link-up between banking group HSBC and Hampton Community College, 86 per cent of the pupils involved said they were thinking of taking a language to GCSE.

"Many pupils say they did not know languages would increase their job prospects," said Michelle Brassell, responsible for BLC at Cilt.

Universities, who see clear effects on employability among their graduates, could force schools to bring back at least one language at GCSE through their admissions requirements. University College London has said it will require a minimum of a GCSE in a language or equivalent for all undergraduate applicants from 2012. King's College London, LSE, Southampton and several other universities are contemplating a similar move as long as it does not discriminate against state schools. "We are looking at requiring those who haven't got a GCSE to make it up in the first year of university," says Professor Kelly at Southampton.

This has been welcomed by many. "Universities are giving out a very important message about the importance of a language, while not being restrictive," Dr King says. Meanwhile, more universities are allowing a language module to be studied with non-language degrees.

The next stage may be for universities to provide alternative routes into languages. Professor Kelly notes that the three-language degree at Southampton that requires one language at A-level, a second at GCSE and a third from scratch is surprisingly popular.

There may be fewer specialist linguists, but many others will be adding a language to their other skills. Dr King is upbeat. "The good news is that languages have stopped falling at GCSE. We are at a point where we can only go up."

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