Not so Fabio: why the English fail to score with languages

15th October 2010 at 01:00
Analysis: Foreign language learning in England is in the doldrums - and the prime suspect is the lack of time allocated to study, as Helen Ward explains

"In this moment my English is not so well," said Fabio Capello at his first press conference as England football manager in 2007. But, he assured the press, not to worry, it would only take him a month or two to crack the language.

Capello, whose English is still the subject of much debate three years on, is not alone in his optimism. In 16 out of 20 countries the most popular iTunes educational podcast at the time of writing is a language course (in the UK it is Derren Brown's Science of Scams). They include: Coffee Break Spanish, 6 Minute English and One Minute Luxembourgish. Lots of people clearly want to learn a language and few have little idea how long it really takes.

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. So should pupils spend a little less time on PowerPoint and a little more on past participles?

While students in Mr Capello's native Italy spend up to 160 hours a year on the subject, the average across the EU is 118.6. In England it is 67 hours a year - roughly equivalent to six weeks of full-time study by the end of Year 9.

There has been growing concern about the state of foreign language learning in England. Following the move to make it optional at age 14 in 2004, the numbers taking it for GCSE have fallen from 75 per cent in 1998 to 44 per cent in 2008. And the amount of time at key stage 3 spent on languages is a factor in how able pupils become and so how likely they are to choose to study it at GCSE.

Indeed, according to a survey of heads of languages from Cambridge University, one in three mentioned the lack of time allocated at key stage 3 as a factor that stopped pupils doing well.

And researchers Michael Evans and Linda Fisher pointed out that a lack of time did not just mean less opportunity to learn, but also less respect. One Year 8 student told them: "It's not seen like an important subject because teachers don't seem to focus on it a lot and we haven't got many lessons compared to other subjects."

Lid King, the national director of languages who carried out a review of language provision with Lord Dearing in 2007, said it is not just time but expectations that need to be managed.

"You do need time and that was why primary languages are so important - because you need to learn over time as well," he says. "But that doesn't mean you can't do something in less time than is perfect. It's about defining what your expectations are going to be. It is about thinking what can be achieved in the time allocated, not having the wrong expectations, but the right ones."

Emma Hofberg, 18, of Liphook, Hampshire, learnt this the hard way. "There was nothing at primary," she says. "Occasionally someone would come in and say 'bonjour' to us - that was our French lesson. I really liked Spanish. I worked hard and in Year 8, I picked up French."

Emma went on to spend five years at Bohunt School, a specialist languages colleges, taking a Spanish GCSE in Year 10, getting a grade C, and then French in Year 11, when she got a B. "I had sort of thought that with a GCSE I'd be able to be confident enough to go somewhere and talk with people locally," she says. That was until she visited France two years ago.

"Only then did I find I could only say small stuff, like, 'Can I buy a pen, please?' I had expected to be able to speak more - the books we read in French had people who were all talking to each other. I thought I'd be able to do that. I am good at learning languages as a subject. But I can't speak French."

So how long does it take to learn to speak a language? The Foreign and Commenwealth Office (FCO) specialises in language training. Officials point out, though, that to learn a difficult language from scratch could take more than a year of intensive study.

An FCO spokesperson said: "Our training is intended to equip FCO officers to work effectively in a foreign language, using advanced language skills to represent and negotiate on behalf of the British Government.

"Individual training programmes vary from an intensive long-term programme in Mandarin, which could last for 18 months, to part-time classes in French. The number of hours of tuition are dependent on the difficulty of the language and can vary greatly because of varying levels of existing knowledge and time available."

Managing pupils' expectations so that initial enthusiasm is not undermined early on could help as long as the national guidelines for timetabling languages stay at 8 to 10 per cent of the timetable in key stage 3.

Some schools, especially language colleges, devote more time and there are ways of making the time available go further, such as the growing interest in teaching subjects such as history in French. But at some point there is no escaping the need to memorise vocabulary.

Helen Myers is a past president of the Association for Language Learning and assistant head at Ashcombe School, a language college in Surrey. She says one way to approach this problem is a cross-curricular solution.

"It is something where you do need hard graft," she says. "That's where I promote the use of ICT, because it can disguise the hard graft you need."

But this is just one part of the problem. Time is key, and that is why the OECD report is so worrying. Theresa Tinsley, director of communications at CILT, the National Centre for Languages, sums it up.

"There is a lack of understanding that you learn languages in a very different way from other subjects," she says. "There is a snowball effect - the more you build up the basics, the more sticks. It is not that other countries have some magic solution (to the teaching of foreign languages) - they just do it for longer."

Join the debate at



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.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today