Very few people would deny the importance of language skills to Britain’s economy. In a 2013 survey carried out by Pearson, 70 % of businesses said that they valued language skills in their employees. Yet it has often been lamented in the last few years that the number of students leaving education with appropriate language skills is constantly decreasing. However, whilst the number of students opting to take a degree in a modern foreign language fell again last year, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel as students are increasingly finding alternative methods to learn new languages.
Although the number of students accepted on to an undergraduate degree in modern languages fell by 16% between 2007 and 2014, it does not seem that students are abandoning language learning altogether. Rather, they are choosing alternative routes to learn a language outside of their main degree programme. This can be seen in the increased uptake of Institute Wide Language Programmes or “Languages for All” courses. The number of students participating in these free, extra-curricular courses provided by their universities has doubled in a decade according to a recent report by the University Council of Modern Languages. In some cases, these courses are so popular that demand outstrips supply. When Cardiff University started its Languages for All programme in 2014, they had to close registration early as the number of applications for classes in the first term exceeded the number of available spaces.
Another encouraging figure is the number of UK students who are choosing to spend time abroad as part of their degree which rose to 28, 640 in 2014, a 50% increase from the previous year. This can either be to study at a foreign university or to do an internship. There has also been a 115% increase since 2007 in UK participation in the Erasmus programme, which supports exchange programmes between various European universities. For many students, a very important part of this time abroad is the opportunity to learn the local language. IN addition to this, language learning apps are becoming increasingly popular amongst students and non-students alike.
However, before we decide that language degrees are no longer necessary, we should perhaps listen to Jocelyn Wyburd’s, chair of the University Council of Modern Languages, note of warning, “Both potential students and some university management teams may see this as replacing the need to take or provide language degrees. It doesn’t”. Whilst any increase in language learning should be celebrated, Britain still needs to encourage the uptake of language degrees if we want a workforce with the high-level language skills that are necessary for a flourishing economy.