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UK students are slowly ditching French and German in favor of Spanish and Chinese

Pupils take a GCSE mathematics exam at the Harris Academy South Norwood in south east London, March 2, 2012
Reuters/Luke MacGregor
It’s probably math, not a language.
  • Nikhil Sonnad
By Nikhil Sonnad

Reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

For a Brit trying to decide which foreign language to learn, French has long been an obvious choice. France is just across the English Channel, the language is widely spoken, and it is influential on the world stage.

But now, Brits are finally expanding their horizons beyond the languages of Europe, to China, the Arab world, and Latin America. While French remains the most-studied language among secondary school students in the UK, its popularity is falling dramatically. Spanish is risking along with non-European languages like Chinese and Arabic. The same trend is also happening in the US.

That data is based on a new British Council report on trends in language-related GCSEs, the certificate given to British secondary students in particular subject areas. The decline in both French and German is even more pronounced if instead of GCSEs you look at A-levels, the more advanced qualification for students on their way to university.

The uptick in Spanish is happening so quickly that the British Council estimates it will dethrone French within the next few years. “On current trends,” the report writes, Spanish “looks set to overtake French at A-level by 2020 and at GCSE in the early 2020s.”

The huge rise in Polish is curious. It is likely the result of both students and schools trying to boost grade performance by having the children of immigrants take GCSEs for languages they already speak. The exceptionally high passing rates for Polish suggest that the people studying it may not have needed to in the first place: In 2011, 95% of students passed Polish, compared to just 72% for French.

Nevertheless, the decline of French is real. But its long history in the UK means it won’t go away. That may not be the case with German, though. Since 1997, the number of German A-level students has dropped from 9,000 to just over 3,000. That trend is likely to continue—the report also shows fewer schools offering German to students.

That leads to another part of the story, the overall reduction in language-learning among secondary students in the UK. In 2002, 76% of students took a GCSE for a modern language. Today, it’s just 47%.

The report tries to pin some of the blame for a decreased interest in languages on Brexit. “Just over a third of state secondary schools report that leaving the European Union is having a negative impact on language learning, either through student motivation and/or parental attitudes towards the subject,” the report says. But much of the reduction can likely be attributed to the UK government’s 2004 decision to make foreign-language GCSEs optional, in favor of fields like math and science.

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