Pupil Uptake Of Language Studies Declines

The number of pupils opting to learn a language in schools across Northern Ireland is declining, according to a new report by the British Council.

In the eight years leading to 2018, the number of pupils taking languages for their GCSEs declined by 19%, with significant falls in French (41%) and German (18%), while Spanish rose by 16%.

Teachers have reported that levels of difficulty and the grading of exams are reasons for the fall in uptake.

The first Language Trends report surveyed over 300 primary and post primary schools and follows previous research into modern language teaching in both England and Wales. 

Spanish is the language most frequently taught in Northern Ireland's schools, followed by French, and then Irish. The report found that modern language learning is becoming increasingly marginalised within the curriculum, with a significant decline in the number of pupils learning languages at both GCSE and A-Level.

Many respondents believed languages were no longer valued in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and the uptake had declined since they lost their compulsory status at Key Stage 4.

Other barriers cited for the decline included the perceived level of difficulty of languages at GCSE and A-level. Many of those surveyed felt that GCSE specifications and the off-putting grading system had an impact on both students who aspired for top grades and those simply looking for a pass- with many students opting for what they saw as an 'easier alternative'.

Further factors included competition from heavily promoted STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) subjects, the closure of university language courses, Brexit and a preference for more 'practical' vocational subjects.

Unlike in England and Scotland, learning a second language is not a statutory part of the primary school curriculum in Northern Ireland and many teachers surveyed would like to see the return of the Primary Modern Language Programme, which was funded by the Department of Education until 2015.
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Jonathan Stewart, Director at the British Council for Northern Ireland said more people should be learning languages in school if the region is to remain competitive on the international stage.

He commented: "The benefits of learning a language are huge; from boosting job prospects to acquiring the ability to understand and better connect with another culture - so we must therefore make a concerted effort to give language learning back the respect and prominence it deserves.

"At the British Council, we already have lots of ways that schools can help encourage language learning amongst their pupils whether it's through employing a modern language assistant or partnering with a school in another country."

Speaking about the report, Professor Janice Carruthers, Professor of French Linguistics at Queen's University Belfast, said political representatives have a responsibility to reverse the trend.

"The challenges are very similar across the UK - however, the context of Northern Ireland is different," Professor Carruthers commented. "Unlike Scotland, Wales and England, we have not yet benefited from any specific initiative or policy to support languages.

"We need a clear message from our devolved government about the importance of languages for key parts of our economy, not least tourism and inward investment. Languages are crucial for cultural understanding, both at home and internationally.

"There is an opportunity in Northern Ireland to address the challenge before uptake falls even further. I hope our devolved government will respond as a matter of urgency."

Despite the continuing decline, the report does highlight some positive developments, such as the rise in Spanish by 16% at GCSE. A number of primary and post primary schools are also offering more diverse languages such as Mandarin and Arabic, which were both cited in the British Council's 'Languages for the Future' report as crucial to the UK's long-term competitiveness, particularly as the country plans to leave the European Union.

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