Why the Decline in Students Doing a Modern Languages Degree?


“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way” (Frank Smith) – If this is the case, why, over the last ten years, has the number of students taking up a Modern Languages degree decreased significantly? This  seems a terrible shame as there are so many opportunities for talented linguists.

Now there is said to be only one in every 65 students who choose a modern foreign language degree compared to one in every 48 in 2007 (Davies, 2015). Despite the number of students dropping from 2007 when universities started charging fees up to £9,000, subjects such as the sciences have recovered, but not Modern Languages, so why is this?

BBC, 2014. Picture available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-27634990

Although the career paths for a Modern Languages degree are not as clear cut as those such as Law or Medicine, a Modern Languages degree nevertheless opens the doors to numerous career opportunities, which may not be obvious when deciding to take up a language or study modern languages at university. You can go into all kinds of sectors: politics, media, teaching, tourism, business, translating, interpreting, public relations, marketing, law…the options are endless! Yet when people are considering going to university, the overwhelming fees often make them think that they need to study a degree that will lead directly into a more obvious career path, rather than considering degrees which would give you a variety of options.

Languages such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin and Arabic are all global languages. With the EU still being the largest export market for the UK, German, French and Spanish graduates are highly sought after by companies. It may be argued that English is currently the most global language, but we cannot just assume that this will be the case in years to come. Nor can we assume that wherever we go there will be someone that speaks English – it just doesn’t work like that! There is perception that English people are lazy in learning languages, and that our language skills are limited to basic greetings and settling the bill on holiday. We need to change this. Studying languages is not just beneficial for a future career, it opens doors to new friendships, provides you with a deeper cultural understanding of a foreign language and allows you to think both laterally and creatively.

So where does the problem stem from? It goes back to when children are first exposed to learning a language in an educational setting at school. The crux of the issue was when Modern Languages was removed as a compulsory GCSE subject in 2004. Although languages were reintroduced as an obligatory subject into the primary school curriculum, GCSEs in Modern Languages are still not compulsory in every school. This is a vicious circle as at the moment there are not many teachers who have the qualifications to be language teachers, due to the lack of Modern Languages graduates. Furthermore, some schools have been forced to stop teaching languages at all due to a small number of students that are interested – I’ve had first-hand experience of this at school when the German A-Level had to be stopped as only one person wanted to carry on with it after GCSE.

Students tend to be more interested in taking subjects such as Maths and Sciences in contrast to humanities subjects, where essay-based subjectivity can make it challenging to attain the top grades. Studies have shown that pupils in England start learning a language later than average compared to other European counties. Here, pupils are taught languages for fewer hours a week and overall do not see the benefit of it as much as other students in Europe. In a recent article in The Times, it has even been shown that secondary schools are pulling out lower ability students from studying languages to do extra English and Maths. This creates the idea that languages are simply expendable, even though learning languages has been proven to help children’s development in terms of written and oral communication, and they generally score higher on standardised tests.

We need to increase the interest in languages again and to demonstrate the wide array of benefits of studying modern languages at university.


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