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Tongues tell tale of nation in flux

French and German are waning in popularity as subjects to be studied at GCSE. Helen Ward reports.

Patterns of language learning are changing as those spoken by Britain's minority communities soar in popularity while numbers studying traditional modern languages for GCSE plummets.

Far more students still study French and German at GCSE than community languages, but entries have dropped by 14 per cent since they were made optional last year.

Arabic and Chinese are the fastest-growing community languages, with numbers up 63 per cent and 40 per cent respectively in the past five years, according to Cilt, the National Centre for Languages. Urdu is still the most popular GCSE community language, but it has slightly fewer exam entrants than in 2001.

Punjabi and Gujarati are becoming less popular. Cilt said the decline of Indian subcontinent languages may be due to many Asian pupils now having fewer ties to the country from which their grandparents or great-grandparents emigrated.

Its study found that 17 community languages are being taught in mainstream schools. "Many children of refugees and asylum-seekers, and of economic migrants from different parts of the European Union are new arrivals in schools, increasingly in areas where previously there was little experience of bilingualism," it said.

The number of GCSE entries for all languages dropped by 17 per cent between 2001 and 2005.

Five years ago there were few community-language speakers in Wrexham. Now at least 25 languages are spoken in schools, including Portuguese, Polish, the Philippine language Tagalog and Shona, spoken in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

At Gosford Hill school in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, David Jones, the headteacher, says more than 20 languages are spoken by pupils. French, German and Spanish are taught and there is a Russian club. Pupils have been entered for public exams in Punjabi, Chinese, Japanese and Russian.

Mr Jones said: "We feel the attainment of these bilingual or trilingual pupils should be recognised. We have a boy from Tajikistan who can speak Tajik, Russian and English."

The study found some staff in mainstream schools felt that teaching community languages was a waste of resources, when students were "naturally" good at them. It concluded: "Many of the benefits which modern language specialists recognise in students who gain competence in languages, such as French, German or Spanish, apply equally to those who speak community languages such as Urdu, Chinese or Greek.

"A key issue for the UK in the age of globalisation is which languages are most likely to be of benefit for the economy in the 21st century. Urdu, Turkish, Chinese, Bengali and Arabic are likely to be on that list."

* Research collated by the Welsh Language Board has found bilingual pupils are more advanced at age four than others.

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