By Vicky Gough

12 November 2020 - 07:59

Green door and windowframe on white house
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Free-Photos used under licence and adapted from the original.

We asked 2000 UK adults about their experience of language learning and what languages young people should learn today. British Council’s Vicky Gough breaks down the results.

How many people in the UK tried learning a foreign language during lockdown?

Ten per cent of the people we surveyed started learning a new language or returned to one after a break.  

How does this compare with other activities, like online workouts?

Fitness activities including running and yoga were the most popular during lockdown at 49 per cent. Baking and cooking were next, at 31 per cent.  

I think people were pining after cancelled holidays and wanted to get a flavour of another country in their homes. Working from home and freedom from commuting might have given people more time to begin or return to language learning.

What languages did UK adults rank as most important?

The survey found that one third of UK adults think Spanish is the most important language for young people to learn. That was followed by French at 20 per cent and Mandarin Chinese at 18 per cent. 

This is a similar finding to our research which places Spanish, Mandarin and French as the three most important languages to:

  • maintain and improve the UK’s economic position
  • deepen international influence.   

Spanish is the second most widely spoken first language in the world. It has approximately 437 million native speakers, and Spain is also the most popular destination for people from the UK. Many people in the UK have travelled to or intend to travel to Spain, and so can imagine using Spanish to communicate.

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How did German and Arabic compare in popularity with Spanish, French and Mandarin Chinese?

I was surprised by the low number of lockdown language learners citing German (eight per cent) and Arabic (two per cent). These two were the fourth and fifth languages in the research mentioned above. 

Arabic ranks as the fourth most widely spoken language in the world, with over 230 million native speakers. It’s a second language for a further 100–200 million people across northern Africa and western Asia. Only around five or six per cent of English secondary schools teach Arabic – many as an extracurricular subject.

A quarter of the EU’s population have German as their first language. Traditionally, German has been the second most widely taught language in the UK. However, in the last 10–15 years it has been overtaken by Spanish. 

German remains the third most widely studied language at A-level/Scottish Higher level. But over the last decade, it has suffered from severe declines both at A-level/Scottish Higher level and at GCSE/Scottish standard grade.  

German is particularly significant to business and to research, so policymakers and academics often express concern about the decline of German in the UK.

Why are people choosing smartphone apps over traditional learning methods like language classes or one to one tutoring?

I think accessibility and immediacy are the answers to this. In lockdown, people used their phones to easily access language learning apps and podcasts. Finding online classes can take more time and will have a cost attached.  

A high percentage of people think languages should be compulsory at primary and secondary school; how does that compare with reality in schools?

According to our survey, most UK adults have regrets about their own experiences of language-learning and believe that it is important for children to learn languages now. Sixty-six per cent say languages should be compulsory at primary school and 79 per cent at secondary.  

In England, languages have been a statutory part of the curriculum at Key Stages 2 and 3 ages 7-14 since 2014. Despite this, few people (in the UK as a whole) study languages at secondary level and degree level in universities compared to the beginning of the century.  

What have we learned about language learning by surveying teachers and the public over the years?

Young people from less affluent backgrounds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are the most likely to have limited access to languages. This further reduces their chances of social mobility. 

Most primary schools in England offer languages. But nine out of ten respondents to our recent Language Trends England survey indicated that although their school has a set time for teaching languages each week, this does not always take place in practice. This is due to issues such as other pressures on the curriculum.

Inequity in language learning across the social divide widens at secondary level. The most disadvantaged pupils continue to be far less likely than their peers to study languages at GCSE. There is also a stark gender divide, with boys much less likely to take an exam in languages than girls. Around half the cohort of 16 year olds take a GCSE in languages.

What benefits of language learning do you and the respondents to this survey see?

Most people we surveyed recognise the benefits of language learning for

  • travel (73 per cent)
  • careers opportunities (72 per cent)
  • better understanding of other cultures (70 per cent)
  • boosting brain power (62 per cent).  

We need to encourage young people in the UK to develop their language skills at school and keep them up in the future. This could ensure that they don’t have the same regrets about language learning in their future as today’s adults. 

Join our webinar Languages for all: how do we get there? on 16 November 2020 from 16.30–17.30 GMT. The webinar is part of International Education Week 2020.

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