The worrying decline in modern foreign languages in England’s schools has long been documented, but a new research study now suggests a trend that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
The authors of the report Teaching Spanish in the UK believe that Spanish could overtake French as the UK’s most popular language at A level in 2019. They argue that the popularity of Spain as a tourist destination is driving the subject’s “extraordinary growth”.
Co-author Teresa Tinsley said: “Pupils think they will have an opportunity to speak Spanish in an enjoyable setting, and they are more aware that it’s a global language, say, than French is, because of Latin America and because of the status of Spanish in the United States. Because we consume so much American culture, it seeps into our awareness that – if there’s another language to learn – then Spanish is a good one. And then there’s football, of course.”
Figures show that A-level Spanish entries rose to just under 9,000 in 2017, compared with just under 8,000 in 2011.
In contrast, it says that A-level French entries fell to just over 9,000 last year, compared with around 13,000 in 2011.
Tinsley said Spanish had already overtaken French as the most popular language A level in Northern Ireland, adding that the same thing could happen this academic year in the UK as a whole – although it was more likely to occur in 2020.
“I think students are motivated by the idea of travel and having a good time rather than work. They can see themselves on a beach or at a fiesta,” she said.
At GCSE, the report says, there were 90,549 candidates for Spanish in 2017 compared with 58,681 in 2011, while in French there were 130,801 in 2017, compared with 141,749 in 2011.
Co-author Gonzalo Capellan de Miguel said that if the GCSE trends continued at this rate, Spanish would become the most popular language at GCSE within five years. “The popularity and demand of Spanish has grown in such an extraordinary and spectacular way over the past 20 years,” he added.“There are now around half-a-million pupils in secondary schools in the UK studying Spanish.
“People in Spain can’t believe it. They think the British education system is not very inclined to language learning and they think that if the British are going to learn a language it will be French.”
British Council research states that Spanish will be “the most needed language in post-Brexit Britain”, based on a range of factors including perceptions of business leaders, patterns of tourism and “strategic aims of government in terms of economy and security”.