To secure its prosperity, Wales needs citizens who can communicate confidently in languages other than English and Welsh, and who are comfortable in different cultural environments. The authors of the first Wales-wide Language Trends research report explain the situation for modern foreign languages (MFL) in Wales.
Wales has an advantage: widespread bilingualism
Wales is unique in the UK and fortunate in having an advantage over England, Scotland and Northern Ireland when it comes to learning foreign languages: everyone in Wales has to learn both Welsh and English throughout primary and secondary school. Being a bilingual nation should make it a lot easier for Welsh citizens to learn third or fourth languages. Research in France and in the Basque Country in Spain shows that, having already learned one additional language, students find other languages easier to acquire.
Some of the teachers responding to our survey of secondary schools across Wales support these findings. They say that bilingual pupils are better able to make links between languages and understand grammatical concepts. One teacher commented that 'already having knowledge of other language(s) opens the mind to similarities and differences in new ones', while another was clear that 'triple literacy improves English literacy'.
The advantage is not being used
But overall, our findings reveal that the potential benefits of bilingualism are not being realised in Wales and that MFL is, in fact, in a desperate situation with little prospect of improvement in sight.
The study of a foreign language is only compulsory in Wales for students aged 11 to 14 and just 22 per cent continue with their studies up to GCSE (age 16), fewer than in any of the other UK countries. Responding to our survey, many teachers express a deep concern about the future of their subject, saying: 'It feels like we are fighting a losing battle' and 'something needs to be done quickly before we see a further deterioration and perhaps the complete disappearance of modern languages'.
Published data on examinations taken by Welsh schoolchildren show that, between 2002 and 2014, the number of entries for MFL plummeted at GCSE level (by 42 per cent), while entries for French, German and Spanish at A-level had halved. Recent changes to the assessment system for Welsh schools are unlikely to reverse or halt this dramatic decline. So what exactly is going wrong? Our research found that there is a complex cocktail of issues all conspiring to have an adverse effect on the value given to foreign languages in education.
Recent changes to policy have had an adverse effect on language-learning
One major obstacle to the study of foreign languages in Wales has come about because of recent changes to educational policy and assessment systems. Changes to the Welsh Baccalaureate, the identification of MFL as a ‘non-core’ subject and heavy promotion of maths, literacy and science subjects have resulted in the neglect of MFL in many schools. In just the past three years, lesson time for foreign languages has been reduced in 43 per cent of schools. The dramatic increase in the number of subject options for pupils in recent years, as well as the fact that it is considered more difficult to be certain of achieving the highest grades in an MFL, have also contributed to reducing the number of students choosing to study a foreign language to GCSE and even more so to A-level.
People with influence don't promote foreign languages
Just as in other UK countries, foreign languages tend to be under-appreciated in society in general. A number of teachers participating in our research referred specifically to the negative attitudes of parents towards foreign language learning and the fact that both the government and influencers such as the media or school-based senior managers seem not to appreciate the value of languages.
How Welsh is taught is often unhelpful in acquiring an additional language
Another major reason why the benefits of bilingualism may be untapped in Wales may have to do with the way Welsh is taught, particularly in primary schools. Many of the teachers participating in the research commented on the fact that children are not being taught Welsh in a way that will support language-learning more widely. They say they are not being given the underlying knowledge about language, which would enable them to transfer learning about Welsh into learning other languages at a later date. In the words of one teacher, 'I cannot detect a greater understanding of language despite pupils doing these two subjects. The pupils do not appear to carry forth a general knowledge of structure or grammar into secondary. I feel that it is all piecemeal. Their real practical use of Welsh is very patchy'.
Our research also reveals a severe lack of opportunities for teachers of Welsh/English and MFL to collaborate on a regular basis. Cross-language support between teachers would do a great deal to contribute to improving pupils' overall literacy, one of the goals of the current government in Wales, but currently a missed opportunity.
The future for foreign languages in Wales is bleak
The future does indeed look rather bleak for foreign languages in Wales. In his recent review of the Welsh curriculum and assessment arrangements, Professor Graham Donaldson called for an improvement in the teaching of Welsh in all schools, which he believes will create a better foundation for the subsequent learning of third and fourth languages.
But without concerted and sustained efforts from policy makers, educators and parents, working closely with professionals in foreign-language-teaching, designed to effect a significant change of attitude across society as a whole, the study of foreign languages looks set to continue to decline and possibly disappear in the course of the next decade. A real change is needed to recognise the value of foreign languages, and how these should sit alongside other academic subjects, to improve the prospects of young Welsh citizens as they enter employment or continue with their studies at tertiary level.
The Language Trends survey for Wales is published by the British Council and CfBT Education Trust. It is based on responses from 136 of the 213 secondary schools in Wales.
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