Why don’t pupils want to study languages in the UK?

After a BBC report showed drops of up to 50% in the take-up of GCSE language courses since 2013, researchers from the AHRC-funded Open World Research Initiative Creative Multilingualism project ask: Why don’t pupils want to study languages and what can we do about it?

Professor Suzanne Graham and Dr Linda Fisher are researchers on Creative Multilingualism’s 7th strand, Language Learning, which is investigating the impact of using creative teaching materials and methodologies on pupils’ motivation and achievement.

Evidence showing that language learning is at an all-time low in UK secondary schools continues to mount up. Last month, having surveyed more than 2000 secondary schools, the BBC reported that in some areas in England entries to German and French exams have fallen by as much as 30 to 50% since 2013. The pattern is similar in all four UK countries: in Wales entries are down 29%, in Northern Ireland it’s 40%, with Scotland reporting a 19% fall for its equivalent qualifications. Rises in entries for Spanish and Mandarin, while welcome, are not enough to offset the overall drop in numbers.

Not only are fewer pupils choosing to study a language, but languages departments across the regions are limiting the range of languages they offer, mainly because if they haven’t got the uptake they can’t afford the staffing. Naturally, the impact of this continuing decline in numbers is likely to be felt further up the education chain, as even fewer budding linguists come forward to complete A-levels and languages degrees.

This gloomy picture of pupils rejecting languages as soon as they have the chance shores up the narrative that the British don’t or can’t do languages. In a 2015 British Council survey 62% of Britons said they can’t speak any other language apart from English.

It is important to recognise, however, that this narrative of deficit and deficiency is not a phenomenon solely located in the UK, but rather is an Anglophone world problem. Australia has seen similar hand-wringing headlines decrying the ‘spectacular failure’ of the country in language learning. Similarly in the US, students are reported to be ‘lagging behind’ the rest of the world in learning a second language.

One thing these Anglophone countries have in common, apart from English and low levels of attainment and motivation for language learning, is the small amount of time they allocate to studying languages within the school week, especially when compared with other countries. It’s therefore not surprising that learners in Anglophone countries find it hard to reach a level of competence in languages. Indeed, a recent study of pupils of French moving from primary to secondary schooling in England underlines just how important amount of teaching time is, not only for actual competence, but also for sense of competence and hope that future progress is possible.

Without that sense of competence, or self-efficacy, learners are unlikely to choose to continue with language learning. As part of our project exploring creativity and language learning we asked around 545 learners of French and German (14 year olds) whether they wanted to continue learning that language in the future.

We also asked them various questions to find out what they thought of language learning. Contrary to popular belief, most thought it was important to learn a language but further statistical analysis showed that how important they thought language study was had no influence on whether they intended to continue with it.

Instead, what did have the biggest influence was how confident they were in being able to express their thoughts and feelings in the language, how well they could understand the kind of spoken language that a teenager might listen to, and being able to imagine themselves using the language in their future lives.

Self-efficacy, or its lack, also emerged in a metaphor elicitation task, where we asked learners to come up with a metaphor representing their language learning. Here about a fifth of the pupils’ metaphors and similes touched on a perceived lack of competence. Many compared learning a language to a skill which others could do, but they felt they couldn’t:

“Learning a language is like trying to ice skate – I keep falling over and can’t get the hang of it.”

At other times, pupils chose a simile involving something impossible to show how they felt they could never succeed, for example:

“Learning a language is like trying to fly … I just can’t do it.”

Giving learners a sense of competence in the things that matter to them is hard to do with limited curriculum time. However, in our project we have had some success from using poems and challenging texts in ways that have tried to engage learners’ thoughts and feelings, and to get them to read and talk about topics that go beyond what they normally study in class.

They told us that they enjoyed talking about feelings, looking more deeply at what a writer is trying to say, and working with more meaningful and engaging activities:

“It was interesting to say how you feel in French rather than just describing things … it’s more engaging.”

This cultural and personal approach to language learning might have something to contribute to shoring up languages’ position in the UK school curriculum and beyond. By showing the pupils what they can achieve even with a small level of language, they might start believing they’re able to succeed at language learning and be more motivated to continue with languages at GCSE and A Level. Pupils understand that languages are important; we need to prove that they are enjoyable and also achievable.

Follow twitter for details on this and similar research @creativelangs or @owrilanguages or at the website https://www.creativeml.ox.ac.uk/about

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