'Urgent action' needed over decline in language learning, Cambridge University warns

Report claims that a lack of language skills is having a major political and economic impact

Kaye Wiggins

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The University of Cambridge is calling for a major rethink of the government’s approach to language learning, arguing that it should not be the responsibility of the Department for Education alone.

A report from the university, published today, says the UK is struggling with a “skills deficit” on foreign languages that has “wide-reaching economic, political and military effects”. The university is calling for “urgent action” from the whole of government to tackle the issue.

The publication follows TES' report last week that the OCR exam board, which is owned by the university, was to stop providing GCSEs and A levels in French, Spanish and German.

'English is not sufficient'

Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett, professor of French philology and linguistics at the university, said: “It is vital that we communicate clearly and simply the value of languages for the health of the nation. English is necessary, but not sufficient. We cannot leave language policy to the Department for Education alone.

“We need a more coordinated cross-government approach which recognises the value of languages to key issues of our time including security and defence, diplomacy and international relations, and social cohesion and peace-building.”

The report urges the government to address a series of “imminent or immediate problems”:

  • Language learning is in decline throughout the education system, from schools to universities. The report warns that university language departments and degree courses are being closed;
  • UK companies are losing business because of a lack of language skills;
  • The UK’s “soft power” in conflict and national security matters is being eroded because of “a shortage of speakers of strategically important languages”.

A Department for Education spokesperson claimed that by introducing the Ebacc, it had “stopped the decline in modern foreign languages seen in the last decade”.

Languages have also been a compulsory part of the primary curriculum since 2014, they added.

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Kaye Wiggins

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