By Scott McDonald, Chief Executive, British Council

15 November 2023 - 10:00

School student learning languages in classroom

British Council

Scott McDonald, Chief Executive of the British Council looks at the findings of the British Council Language Trends England 2023 survey.

In this year’s Language Trends England survey, we discovered nearly nine in ten primary schools across England have pupils who speak a language in addition to English. This linguistic and cultural diversity is something to be proud of and it confirms the importance of a school curriculum that promotes intercultural skills and language learning.

In multicultural and multilingual Britain all young people deserve the chance to learn a language and have their ability to speak additional languages recognised and celebrated. But are all young people in England offered the same opportunity to learn a language in school?

The divide between language learning in private and state schools

Unfortunately, the resource for language learning is not the same in every school, and over the years there has been concerning evidence of a growing social divide. While more than half (53%) of private and independent schools teach every pupil at least two languages in years 7-9 (key stage 3 – pupils aged 11 to 14 years), fewer than one in five (16%) state schools do, with two-thirds (66%) teaching only one foreign language at key stage 3. 

The appetite for language learning is seemingly higher in independent and private schools, with three in ten pupils taking a language for GCSE, compared to just one in ten in state schools. German has been the hardest hit, with entries at GCSE dropping from 36,933 in 2021 to 34,966 last year, with the proportion of state schools offering German significantly lower than independent schools. 

The numbers of pupils taking languages across the board are far lower than they need to be. For the UK Government to achieve its English Baccalaureate (EBacc) target, which aims for 90% of pupils in England to study a GCSE in a modern foreign language by 2025, we estimate that a quarter of a million more pupils need to take a language as one of their options. 

This deficit has further implications. While the interest in modern foreign languages wanes in schools, so does the capacity for teaching languages. With fewer people taking languages in school, fewer people go on to study a language at university. This results in fewer people, from a broad range of backgrounds going into the professions where language skills are key – such as teaching, diplomacy, and business. 

Positive change for the future

Our report does highlight positive developments.  Schools’ international engagement is showing signs of improvement in primary, state, and independent secondary schools after suffering significantly during the Covid pandemic. 

The growing popularity of Spanish, which is the most taken language at A-level for the fourth year running and predicted to become the most popular language at GCSE, is a sure sign that languages are not a lost cause. Spanish has grown in importance for the UK both for tourism and as a global business language, as well as being the second most widely spoken first language in the world. There is perhaps a case to be made that better recognition of the practical use of languages could lead to bigger uptake. 

We have also started to see the emergence of other languages, ancient and modern. In state schools, after the “Big Three” (French, German and Spanish), Mandarin Chinese is the most popular language. Much to the pleasure of classicists, in primary schools, Latin has become the fourth most taught language. Forming the basis of 60 per cent of words in English as well as originating languages such as French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, many linguists will be thrilled to hear about the schools setting the foundations for language learning at such an early age. 

The most optimistic piece of news is the formation of the National Consortium for Languages Education (NCLE), led by University College London with the British Council and Goethe-Institut. The aim of this new initiative is to close the gap in language education by increasing the uptake of MFL (modern foreign language) qualifications in Key Stage 4 and 5 (14 to 18 years old) in English state-funded schools. Twenty-five lead hub schools across England will be selected by the NCLE, with each delivering training to up to seven partner schools, to improve standards of language teaching and learning across the country. 

Although there are areas for improvement, this is an exciting time for language teachers and learners. Languages open so many doors – not only are they a valuable skill highly sought after by employers, but they also allow for a deeper understanding and appreciation of the wider world. Formation of the NCLE will help us give young people in the UK more opportunities to learn about and engage with different cultures and make positive change in an increasingly interconnected world. 


Language Trends England 2023

A version of this article originally appeared in TES.


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