A recent YouGov survey commissioned by the British Council explores the attitudes of Year 9 pupils (age 13-14) in England towards language learning, during the academic year before they begin studying for their GCSE exams. GCSE subject options are usually chosen towards the end of Year 9. British Council Schools Adviser Vicky Gough discussed the findings with us.
What does the survey tell us about Year 9 pupils’ attitudes towards languages?
Most pupils (72 per cent) recognised the importance of languages in understanding different cultures and places and 72 per cent of pupils also agreed that languages are a useful skill to have for many future careers. However, 30 per cent of pupils said they didn’t need to learn another language when English is spoken widely around the world - and more boys than girls felt this to be true.
Which languages do Year 9 pupils most want to be able to speak?
Spanish proved to be the most popular language, chosen by 29 per cent of pupils, followed by French at 15 per cent and German at 10 per cent.
The British Council’s 2021 Language Trends Report found that French is the most popular language studied at Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) and GCSE – although if current trends continue, it is likely to be overtaken by Spanish by 2026. (Spanish has already overtaken French at A level).
Apart from the ‘big three’ languages (Spanish, French, and German), 9 per cent of pupils said they would most like to speak Japanese fluently, 5 per cent Mandarin Chinese, and 4 per cent Russian.
How do Year 9 pupils compare languages to other subjects?
Languages were perceived as ‘more difficult’ than other subjects at school by more than half (53 per cent) of Year 9 pupils in England. More than a third of pupils (37 per cent) felt that languages were less important than other subjects and 35 per cent thought languages were only for people with strong academic ability.
Are there any differences between Year 9 boys and girls when it comes to languages?
The survey found that Year 9 boys generally had a less positive attitude towards language learning than girls. Nearly one in five (19 per cent) Year 9 boys at schools in England said that learning languages was a ‘waste of time’ and one quarter (26 per cent) disagreed that understanding another language was relevant to their life.
Boys seem to value languages less than girls do, with 43 per cent saying languages are less important than other subjects at school, compared to 32 per cent of girls. Previous British Council research has found that the rate of boys’ entry and attainment in languages are consistently below those of girls, with girls more than twice (2.17 times) as likely as boys to enter and achieve at least a grade 4 in a language GCSE. Although more girls than boys study a language at GCSE, encouragingly just 13 per cent of Year 9 pupils think that languages are more of a girls’ subject than a boys’ subject.
What factors influence whether Year 9 pupils study a language at GCSE?
Currently just about half of the cohort at GCSE take a language. This was reflected in the survey where 49 per cent of pupils said they planned to study a language at GCSE, with 24 per cent still undecided.
The majority (78 per cent) of pupils planning to study a language at GCSE said they had been encouraged to do so by their parents/carers. Of those pupils not intending to study a language at GCSE, just 25 per cent said their parents had encouraged them to study one. Only 12 per cent of pupils not intending to study a language at GCSE said that they were inspired by their current language teachers, compared to 55 per cent of pupils planning to study a language at GCSE.
How much pupils enjoy studying languages and their self-belief in their own abilities also has an impact on GCSE choices. Of the pupils who planned to study a language at GCSE 72 per cent said that they currently enjoyed learning languages, compared to 16 per cent of those who did not intend to study a language at GCSE. Sixty five per cent of pupils who planned to study a language at GCSE believed they were good at learning languages, but just 19 per cent of those who did not intend to study a language at GCSE agreed with this.
More than half (55 per cent) of pupils who planned to study a language at GCSE said that learning foreign languages formed part of their future study and career plans. However, the majority of those not intending to study a language (70 per cent) disagreed with this statement, with just 11 per cent seeing a place for languages in their future study and career plans.
What role does culture and international experience play in language-learning?
Seventy one per cent of pupils agreed that visits abroad and communicating with native speakers form an essential part of learning a language. However, the 2021 Language Trends Report found that the pandemic has contributed to the continued and significant reduction in international opportunities at schools in England. These include not only visits abroad but activities such as partnering with a school abroad, involvement in international projects, and hosting a language assistant.
International experiences, such as school partnerships and visits abroad, are an essential part of language learning – so it’s vital that schools look to build back the international opportunities and connections that have been damaged by the pandemic. A recent British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group report, The value of International Experience, recommends ‘prioritising international exchange in language learning from primary school onwards’.
How can we encourage more Year 9 pupils to consider studying a language at GCSE?
There are still a significant number of pupils (and parents) who believe English is enough, so there is still work to do in convincing them of the value of languages. This isn’t just the job of schools, but of government, business and wider society.
One suggestion might be for schools to include more real-world opportunities to use languages, as communication and travel were among the top reasons chosen by pupils for wanting to learn a language.