• Modern foreign languages are becoming increasingly marginalised within the Welsh curriculum
• Many pupils are receiving only a minimal or fragmented experience of language learning
• The potential benefits of bilingualism in Wales are not being realised when it comes to learning a modern foreign language
• In the ten year period from 2005-2014 A-level entries for French, German and Spanish halved
• Only 22% of Welsh pupils take a GCSE in a language other than Welsh or English
The first national survey of modern foreign language (MFL) teaching in Welsh secondary schools has found that foreign language learning is becoming increasingly marginalised within the Welsh curriculum, with the number of pupils choosing to study foreign languages in decline.
The Language Trends Wales report, commissioned by CfBT Education Trust and the British Council, highlights the decline of modern foreign language learning in Welsh schools. This is despite the advantage bilingual Wales should have in learning other languages, with experts agreeing that already having two languages makes learning a third easier.
Language Trends Wales states that in today’s globalised world only 22% of Welsh pupils take a GCSE in a language other than English or Welsh. Teachers say there is less time for languages in the Key Stage 3 curriculum, despite Estyn guidelines for the amount of time that should be devoted to MFL. They also say pupils do not choose to study MFL as they regard language exams as ‘difficult’ and there is competition from other subjects they can choose to study at GCSE level.
The overall picture of foreign languages in Welsh secondary schools is one of mainly French provision. German is taught in around a quarter of schools and Spanish in fewer than half.
No Welsh schools offer Arabic, Russian or Urdu and only a very small number offer lesser taught languages such as Chinese or Italian.
In the ten year period from 2005-2014, A-level entries for French, German and Spanish in Welsh schools have halved. The low numbers of students opting for languages at A-level mean that in many cases courses are becoming financially unviable. Teachers responding to the survey were particularly concerned about the situation at A-level, more so than with the falling numbers at GCSE level.
The biggest declines are in French and German, traditionally the two most widely taught languages in Wales, with entries dropping by 41 per cent and 54 per cent respectively in the ten year period 2005-14.
Spanish saw a slight upward trend from 2001 and overtook German as the second most widely studied language at A-level in 2009. However, in recent years Spanish has seen a decline in numbers with a heavy fall of 22 per cent between 2013 and 2014.
The majority of MFL teachers (89%) were positive about the teaching of Welsh in primary schools, but many believe the benefits of bilingualism can only be maximised if pupils have a high standard of Welsh teaching at primary level.
Director of British Council Wales, Jenny Scott, said: “The low number of Welsh school pupils studying foreign languages is very worrying. We live in an increasingly globalised world and every country needs its young people to have language and intercultural skills, which are essential for international business success. We know that a lack of foreign language skills is also one of the factors that prevent young people from taking up international opportunities, such as those offered by Erasmus+, which can increase academic and professional achievement.”
Tony McAleavy, Director of Research and Development at CfBT, added: “For the first time this survey gives us the opportunity to paint a picture of language learning in Wales highlighting both the successes and challenges that this entails. The future for languages is precarious and pupils are increasingly not being given the opportunities and encouragement needed to stick with language learning.”