Wales should ‘capitalise on its bilingualism’ as Brexit blamed for children dropping foreign languages

Spanish on a chalkboard

Wales has been urged to “capitalise on its strength as a bilingual nation” in order to ensure that school children learn a third language, as the numbers doing so continue to drop.

A new report from British Council Wales says the number of Welsh schoolchildren choosing to study international languages is continuing to decline.

According to the council, Brexit is having a negative impact on attitudes to language learning.

The report, Language Trends Wales 2018, says more than one-third of schools (37%) say that Brexit is having a negative effect on the attitudes of pupils and parents towards studying modern foreign languages (MFL).

Schools are also concerned that Brexit will adversely affect the recruitment and retention of MFL teachers. Schools in south east Wales are most likely to report a negative Brexit impact on MFL (56%).

Jenny Scott, director British Council Wales said that Wales should “capitalise on its strength as a bilingual nation” to reverse the trend, following a “puzzling” drop in Welsh-medium students taking up a foreign language.

“Any future lack of linguists will have serious consequences for Welsh business, tourism and overseas engagement, at a time when building international links and trade are more important than ever,” she said.

“We need to change the standing of MFL, ensuring it is valued and protected in our education system.”

The language trend survey is available to download here.

Decline

Other factors teachers say are contributing to the decline beside Brexit are:

  • MFL is perceived as more difficult than other subjects
  • The low value given to MFL compared to STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths)
  • The reduction in subject choices to make room for the Welsh Baccalaureate

Since 2002 entries for GCSEs in MFL have declined by 57%, with French falling by two-thirds and German by 71%.

This year’s GCSE exam data does show that the decline in German entries has been halted and the decline in French is less steep than in other years, only 5% compared to 11% during 2016-17, but Spanish has seen a large drop in entries of 23%.

A-level entries for MFL have halved since 2001, with French, German and Spanish all badly affected.

Data for 2018 show these trends continue, with significant falls in the number of entries for A-level German down 33%, Spanish down 12% and French down 6%.

Entry figures for AS level offer little hope that the situation will improve in 2019, with continued declines in all three languages.

Global Futures, the Welsh Government’s programme to promote and improve MFL teaching and learning in schools has increased its reach over the last year, from 72% to 87% of survey respondents, and teachers are positive about the usefulness of the programme.

However, survey respondents say that change beyond the scope of Global Futures is needed to reverse the decline in MFL.

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