The new GCSE results show foreign languages are in severe decline – with the number of children learning French and German falling most dramatically of all. Aida Edemariam asks what this means for our universities, our economy, and the future of Britain
[...] Ever since the previous government decided, in 2004, to make language learning optional after the age of 14, the numbers have been dropping.
[...] Making languages optional was, O'Neill says, partly about improving access to education for the less able. Unfortunately, this was founded on "an illusion that a good education for children of fewer advantages is to introduce more choice, and introduce subjects where it's easier to get As and Bs. It's such a silly take on improving access."
[...] Of all the usual languages offered in schools, German suffers most. If only one language is offered, it is, for historical reasons, usually French. And if two languages are offered, German is increasingly pipped to the post by Spanish.
[...] Teachers of German are also increasingly competing with other influences — Japanese, for example. [...] Mandarin Chinese is also among the fastest growing languages in schools, with GCSE entries up 5% on last year, and the number of pupils taking a GCSE in Arabic has almost doubled since 2002.
[...] Managements across the spectrum, from primary school to postgraduate study, seem to see cutting languages as the obvious way reduce their costs. Language classes are intensive, requiring small class sizes, so, as Sarah Colvin, Mason chair of German at the University of Edinburgh, recently told the Guardian, "at a time when university funding is being severely reduced, languages look like an easy way to save money."
"I did French until year two," says Philippa Grogan, now 15, "but then the school couldn't afford to have a French teacher any more, so I stopped.
[...] German is spoken by 101 million people worldwide, and Germany is, says Finlay, "our single most important trading partner. It's one of the world's largest exporters. It's an economic giant, a key player in the European union." German is, as O'Neill puts it, "the language the employers say they most want to have." It is true, says Kelly, that many Germans speak English – "but they are proud of their own language and are pleased if potential partners can make a gesture towards it. And it's easier to buy things in English than to sell them." He quotes Willy Brandt: "If I'm selling to you, I speak your language. But if I'm buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen." The impact on British exports is obvious.