As reported in the Telegraph at the end of last week, the UK is in danger of becoming a “monolingual society,” with new figures showing the number of school pupils and university students studying languages falling substantially.
In fact, the number studying a language at university has fallen by over one third in the last decade (36% to be precise). The actual numbers make it look even worse: in 2020, just 3,830 students took language degrees, down from 6,005 in 2011.
This is not a new thing. In 2013 the Guardian reported “monolingual Britons risk being left behind,” and that our language skills deficit was, at that time, estimated to cost the country £48bn per annum. In 2019, the BBC told us that there had been a decline of 50% since 2013 in the numbers learning French and German in English schools. Here, in Scotland, where Global Connects is based, the BBC Survey showed that “41% of schools (in Scotland) who responded said they had stopped offering at least one foreign language course to 16-year-olds. There were also five council education departments in Scotland where no National 4 or 5 exams in German were recorded in 2017/18.” In Northern Ireland, the numbers taking modern languages at GCSE have fallen by 40% since 2003, with 45% of schools saying they have cut the numbers of specialist language teachers in the past five years. In Wales, the situation is not, on the face of it, quite so bad, with the GCSE figures only falling by 29% over five years, but in the Principality school pupils have to study Welsh, which helps keep the numbers up.
For the UK’s translation and interpretation industry, these figures are worrying. But what’s really concerning is that it’s not as if this is a sudden and unexpected decline: it’s been going on for years and nothing that has been attempted (not much in some instances) has stemmed the reduction in the number studying foreign languages at school and university. Action this day, as a famous politician once said, is what is required…
Paradoxically, the Telegraph article suggested that headteachers believe that Brexit will make the situation worse. I would argue that, with the proviso that international travel can resume back to its pre-pandemic level, Brexit will, fairly quickly, force businesses to seek new international markets – and a wider range of companies from across the world will seek out opportunities in Britain. The world is, as they say, your oyster, but only if you know how to spell oyster in the relevant language(s). At present, there are sufficient translators and interpreters, so the downturn in study is not yet an issue and if you do need to speak or write in another language then there is currently no problem… especially if you come to speak to us first!
Fiona Woodford, Head of Language Services, Global Connects