As school pupils across Britain nervously await their examination results, there are likely to be fewer celebrating passes in modern languages, with German and French seeing particularly worrying declines in student numbers.
The number of pupils studying German at GCSE level fell by 27% from 59,891 to 43,649 in just three years, between 2014-2017. During the same period, figures from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) reveal that French GCSE figures fell by 22% from 168,042 to 130,509.
It was a similar picture in Scotland, where figures from the Scottish Qualification Authority show just 1,899 pupils sat German at National 5 level in 2017, a fall of 14% from 2014. French saw a fall of 39% to a total of 9,078 pupils in 2014.
There was also a drop in students studying German and French at A level during the same three-year time frame. The JCQ report showed just 3,663 pupils took A level German in 2017, which was a 13% drop from 4,187 in 2014. French saw a 9% fall from 10,433 pupils in 2014 to 9,468 in 2017.
It’s no wonder there are also fewer students applying to study European languages at university, with the latest UCAS analysis of undergraduate applications revealing one of the three subject groups with the fewest applications in 2017 was European languages, literature and related subjects (17,970 applications), which was a 6.2% drop from the previous year.
But the ATC, the language sector’s leading professional body, is worried the long-term effects of the decline in European language study – especially German - could reduce the number of qualified translators in the UK at a time when Brexit means the economy’s future could depend on effective communication with key trading partners.
Dan Peachey, ATC Council Member and Commercial Director of Fareham-based language company, Intonation, said: “Britain has never been proactive at language learning and the Government has taken its eye off the ball at a time when there is an increasing need for effective global communication as we approach Brexit.
“There are already fewer qualified translators coming through the system in the UK and as a nation we are lagging further and further behind the linguistic skills of our European counterparts. The decline in pupils studying German is particularly worrying as they are one of our biggest trading partners, and translators will have to play a critical role in winning new contracts.
“The Government needs to recognise the value of modern languages and increase the opportunities for pupils to study languages. We know the UK’s £1.15bn language sector is growing and we need more qualified translators to help British companies target the European export markets which are vital to the nation’s prosperity.
”Dan, who himself studied French and German languages at university, added that Intonation recognised the need to support university language departments and has had links with the University of Portsmouth for nearly 20 years. He regularly visits the University to offer advice to its students and Intonation also provides regular placements for interns, attends the University’s careers fairs and provides guest speakers for events.
Begoña Rodríguez de Céspedes, MA Translation Studies Course Leader at the University of Portsmouth, says the ongoing decline in the number of students studying modern languages at degree level, does mean positive outcomes for current graduates.
“In general we have seen a trend of declining interest in language studies, but it does mean language graduates will have more opportunity to go into niche employment as language professionals. It means their education will have been worthwhile,” she said.
But in the longer term, she said the Government needs to ensure languages are taken seriously so new generations of qualified linguists continue to enter the growing profession.
“The message needs to come out that linguistic skills are needed, especially for people doing business abroad. Locals appreciate a conversation in their native language, and if you can localise all your business documentation you will be more successful. Language studies at schools and colleges should also be made more current and appealing,” she said.
The University of Portsmouth has just opened its own Centre for Applied Research and Innovation in Language Sciences and Education, to attract more people to study languages, translation and interpreting, linguistics and education. The University already offers language modules for students studying degrees in other disciplines, and it hopes the new centre will offer language courses to the Royal Navy and international medical professionals working in Portsmouth.