boy reading orange textbook
Got to keep up with the girls. Photo ©

Paul Hanaoka used under license and adapted from the original.

February 2020

The latest evidence reveals that boys in the UK are seriously underperforming when it comes to learning foreign languages.

We look at why this matters, and what can be done to improve things.

Learning languages has proven benefits for individuals, communities, and societies. There is a wealth of evidence that having another language or languages increases people’s cultural awareness, employability, and even mental health.

At present in the UK, these benefits are not equally distributed between sexes or across demographies. Indeed, the latest report we commissioned from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) shows that girls are twice as likely to take language GCSE’s – and to achieve top grades – as boys.

Furthermore, there have been worrying declines in the overall numbers of students studying most of the major foreign languages taught in schools, which are now at very low levels by historical and international standards.  

This is perhaps a particular problem given the now more urgent imperative for the UK to become more internationally competitive. 

 As it seeks to increase its trade around the world, a truly Global Britain will need a workforce that has the linguistic and cultural skills to be more successful interacting with other countries and cultures, whether through education, travel, culture, or business.  

This goes wider than learning foreign languages, although that is a necessary starting point. In some of our previous research, it was shown that international opportunities helped individuals to build more fulfilling careers and be more confident in their ability to interact with those from other countries. 

Perhaps most strikingly, the report also suggests they also have greater involvement in innovation – a key area of importance to the UK’s future productivity. 

We are committed to school children across the country having international experiences. Languages are a vitally important place to start. Fortunately, the latest evidence suggests that there are things which can be done.

The EPI report finds that the leading factors in exceptional outcomes for boys were compulsory language learning, combined with effective teaching techniques which involved the use of humour, rewards, and competition – rather than the rote learning of grammatical rules out of context from their use. 

Policymakers should also think about harnessing the existing language skills that a diverse body of students has to offer. There may be challenges for teachers now that almost 20 per cent of children starting school in the UK don’t speak English as their first language.

But by definition these students already have proficiency in a wide variety of other languages, including many spoken in rising economies. To harness this hidden resource, and take advantage of the possible benefits,

we may have to look beyond French and other familiar European tongues, and also embrace a wider conception of which languages might be useful for the country’s workforce in the future.  

The evidence shows that these should include, above all, Mandarin and Arabic.

If it is really committed to becoming more international, language learning is an area in which the UK will have to do a lot better. Doing so will bring benefits for many of its people.

Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Editor, Insight

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