Short on skills: Part 5


This article by Dick Evans, Principal of Stockport FE College, is the penultimate in a series looking at issues associated with a number of strategically important subjects, and skills. Others have included engineering, manufacturing, construction, mathematics and science. The difficulties with these subjects reflect fundamental problems we are experiencing in terms of competing successfully in a global economy, producing and sustaining a highly qualified workforce and improving productivity.

Skill shortages in this country are often associated with science and technical subjects but one that has been very longstanding, and, in some ways has a number of different causes from these other subjects, is the ability and skill to learn and use modern languages.

Again, like many of the other subjects where skill shortages have persisted for decades, a great deal of research has been done on why this problem continues. Perhaps one of the main reasons is the fact that English is the global language for science, finance, aviation and technology – 25% of the world’s population speaks English. Does a complacency and arrogance arise from this which might be associated with our colonial past? After all. why should we bother to learn a foreign language when the old maps of the world were largely coloured red and were part of the British Empire.

Sadly, in spite of losing the Empire there seems to persist an arrogance that we do not need to learn other languages. The fact that English has now become the established global language in so many areas of commerce, business and science and increasingly for the Internet, does not encourage people in this country to learn other languages. Yet it is also now predicted that, by 2007, Chinese (Mandarin) could become the number one Web language.

The year 2001 has been designated the European Year of Languages. The Nuffield Foundation recently carried out an enquiry into languages so therefore it would seem opportune to look at the skill shortage in modern languages alongside others that have been published in this journal over the past few months.

For the UK to succeed in the increasingly competitive global economy, it must address as a matter of urgency, this serious skill shortage in its workforce and its citizens in general. The capability in a modern language must be seen alongside and equal to the key skills of communication, application of number and information technology, as well as the wider generic personal skills of problem solving, team working, etc. The ability to communicate across countries and cultures is still as important, if not more important, than it was in the past.

The causes of this problem reflect in many ways the causes of other skill shortages: the difficulty in recruiting highly qualified teachers and lecturers and the very low progression rate, post-sixteen, to study modern languages. Only ten per cent of pupils continue to study a modern language after the age of sixteen. University departments of modern languages are failing to hit target and many are closing or being merged with other departments or faculties within universities. Modern languages teaching in FE colleges is woefully low, even though the colleges themselves are very committed to recruiting increasing numbers of students on programmes of study associated with travel, tourism and business studies which surely require at least one foreign language because of the prospects of career mobility across Europe and beyond.

A number of reports have shown that schools and colleges have found it increasingly difficult to increase and enhance their languages teaching because of continuing difficulties with resources, whether in terms of the ability to recruit highly qualified teachers or to deal with significantly reducing funding and an increasingly hostile funding methodology that deters a more comprehensive, consistent and long term strategy to develop languages teaching, particularly post-sixteen.

These factors and others look oh so familiar, as do analyses of other skill shortages. For example the difficulty in getting up-to-date and valid statistics and the recurring problem of recruiting and retaining teachers within these disciplines. Fewer teachers means, overall, poor quality teaching, leading to pupils and students lacking motivation in modern languages and as a result not progressing on to further or higher studies. A recent report by NIACE showed that only 5% of adults are currently learning a foreign language although, when asked, over 40% said they would very much like to learn another language. Here is a potential area of growth which could improve the general level of language capability in the country and possibly increase language teachers.

If we are serious, in this country, in developing a culture of lifelong learning, then this again needs to be further analysed. There needs to be consistent and long term strategies developed that will encourage adults to learn modern languages. Evidence is also around that mature students are more motivated and are able to complete and achieve their studies and qualifications more so than the younger learners. The whole issue of helping mature students to engage in lifelong learning activities is also an important factor in improving the current situation.

There are, however, some interesting facts about language competence. 45% of adults in the black and ethnic minorities speak more than two languages and this compares with just over 10% of white British adults who speak another language. As this country becomes more multicultural, perhaps this real plus might bring about a different attitude amongst the white population to improve their language capability, although I am not optimistic.

One factor is that English is now the accepted language for the Internet. However, this is a dangerous argument because the Internet is about accessibility and local communication and to argue that English should be the worldwide language in every country is most certainly flawed and arrogant beyond belief. After all, communication business to business and local communication within a country will surely be conducted in the native language. It is therefore important to recognise that there will be the need for other languages, particularly in the issues around accessing local information, but also, in a wider context, to recognise the richness and diversity of other languages that use the Internet, even though it is highly likely that English will remain its global language.

Another factor that reinforces this latter point is the fact that the percentage of native speakers of English continues to decline, and figure 1 attempts to show that decline between 1950 and 2050.

fig01: Decline of Speakers of English from 1950 to 2050, as a percentage of World population

fig01: Decline of Speakers of English from 1950 to 2050, as a percentage of World population

Even though English is the global language of commerce, science and the Internet, it must respect and sit alongside other languages that give the richness and reflects the cultures of the world. It is important that all speakers of any language have the motivation and skills to learn other languages and then, as a result, the cultures of those languages and countries. One interesting consequence of English being the global language for the Internet is a real challenge to colleges and universities in this country. After all anyone can write high quality learning material for the Internet and export it to this country. The nature of the Internet could bring massive competition and learning materials could be supplied from anywhere in the world, particularly the US and even the EU.

Whilst on the global aspects of this topic, it is interesting to note the expected loss of the world’s languages during the century. A number of researchers estimate that we are losing at least one language every two weeks and that the majority of the world’s lesser spoken languages will become extinct at an alarming rate over the next century. Figure 2 indicates this projected loss.

fig02: Projected Loss of Languages 2000-2100

fig02: Projected Loss of Languages 2000-2100

So what is the position of modern language teaching in schools? The National Curriculum for England and Wales specifies a list of nineteen languages which may be taught as part of the curriculum in secondary schools, and figure 3 indicates the most commonly taught languages in England and Wales as given by GCSE entries.

fig03: The Most Commonly Taught Modern Foreign Languages in England and Wales (GCSE)

In secondary schools the average allocation for the Foundation Modern Foreign Language is 10% of curriculum time. Pupils in secondary schools can study a second modern language in addition to the Foundation one but only 5% currently opt to do so at key stage 4 and this compares with 10% just five years ago.

The introduction of the National Curriculum (NC) and all the other aspects of it have put a phenomenal pressure on such subjects as modem languages. Even independent schools are witnessing a decline in the number of pupils who elect to do more than one modern language. It is again associated critically with resources and the amount of curriculum time that can be committed to a number of subjects outside those that are mandatory. Figure 3 shows the dominance of French at GCSE level. This no doubt reflects the one-sided love affair with the French that this country has but it does raise serious questions about how valuable a competence in French is within the global economies when the populations speaking Chinese and Spanish far exceed those that speak French.

The position post-sixteen in languages presents an even more depressing picture. 90% of young people discontinue study of any language and entries at A Level represent just 6.5% of all entries for all subjects.

Figure 4 shows the number of A Level entries in French, German and Spanish between 1988 and 1997:

fig04: Number of A-Level Entries in French, German and Spanish (1988-1997)

fig04: Number of A-Level Entries in French, German and Spanish (1988-1997)

The position in Scotland is even worse, where only 5% of students undertake the study of a modern language. It is therefore interesting to note that the number of entrants to A Level modern languages in ‘popular’ subjects reflects for example the applications for A Level Physics. The numbers continue to decline but also, in relative proportion to the number of A Level entrants. In other words their market share declines in real terms. It is interesting to note that the lesser taught languages at A Level (Italian,Urdu, Russian, Spanish) continue to increase but their numbers still are relatively small. GGE AS entries in languages have also remained very low although there might be real opportunities now, under the emerging Curriculum 2000 framework to offer modern languages as an additional subject, not only to A Level studies but also students undertaking GNVQ Advanced awards and possibly NVQ qualifications.

As mentioned earlier the position in colleges of further education is more difficult to analyse. Very often the students are on very occupationally specific courses and the current funding methodologies do not encourage enhancement or enrichment programmes that could include modern languages. It could be that colleges could now begin to exploit the potential of the Curriculum 2000 framework by offering language modules or indeed a full GCE A/S as an addition to their main core studies, but the resources must be made available. Colleges are also experiencing very severe difficulties with teacher recruitment. Also the reduction in curriculum time as a result of funding convergence makes it increasingly difficult to introduce these additions into programmes of study.

When one attempts to look at the situation in universities, it reflects the same problems as analysing data for colleges of further education. It is very difficult to establish the numbers of students studying languages in universities. This is because they are not only enrolled on language specific programmes but also on programmes of study that involve culture and literature studies.Figure 5 shows the full time and part time undergraduates studying on language, literature and culture under various languages in 1996-97.

fig05: Undergraduate Numbers –Full-time and Part-time for Sessions 1996-97

One of the concerns that universities have at present is that of the implications of the student fees. A number of language degree programmes are four years in duration and this will, over a period of time, mean that those taking them will incur a greater student debt. Many other subjects, such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and architecture have as long and, in some cases longer, duration degree programmes. However the argument is that these will ultimately attract much higher salaries once the students are in employment and can clear the debt. The student on a modern language course, which itself can cost a great deal of money and possibly require placement overseas, might find it more difficult because of the lower salaries that linguists and language speakers attract compared with the other professions mentioned earlier.

The current position could be made even worse where many students might be reluctant to engage in a four year degree programme in languages and move to a shorter three-year programme with all the consequences that that would bring in terms of language capability and competence. One of the points raised in the Nuffield Enquiry into Languages, is the need to improve the data collection at university level, particularly in the area of language and language related teaching. It is almost impossible plan when no valid, reliable and accurate data set exists.

One of the really big areas of concern is teacher training. The supply of language teachers continues to decline and figure 6 shows the recruitment of teacher training courses which indicates that the recruitment target has repeatedly fallen well below target.

fig06: Recruitment in Teacher Training Courses of Language Teachers

fig06: Recruitment in Teacher Training Courses of Language Teachers

Teachers entering the profession are qualified to teach the following subjects:

  • French 53%
  • German 14.9%.
  • Spanish 8.3%
  • Another modern language 21%.
  • Welsh 2.2%.
  • Italian 0.3%.
  • Russian 0.3%.
  • Japanese 0.2%

It is obvious from this list that schools wishing to offer a wide range of languages such as Russian or Japanese to students will clearly have problems. French, again, seems to be the dominant language and serious questions needs to be asked about whether this makes sense in the current global economy.

Clearly, similar situations in teacher supply exist for colleges of further education. It is increasingly proving difficult to find part-time specialists to teach these minority languages, albeit that these languages themselves represent important countries in the global economies, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, etc.

Employers and employer organisations have long stated the extent of linguistic deficiency in this country. DTI research has indicated that 20% of UK exports are adversely affected by barriers in language or cultural ignorance. Over 20% of employers reported an increased need for language skills in their workforces. As globalism continues at a pace, the need for companies and employees to be more competent in languages and cultural awareness is essential. The increasing internationalisation of British industry through mergers again requires workforces to become multilingual. Currently 60% of this country’s exports go to non-English speaking countries. Therefore it is essential, if this country is to maintain and further increase its exports to such countries, that employers improve language skills in their key staff. Recently companies have indicated a slight improvement in ‘linguistic proficiency’ but most of these gains have been in French not in the key emerging languages of Spanish, German or Chinese.

What is needed now?

In summary, as with the other articles on skills shortages, it might be useful to highlight what the debates should concentrating on:

  • Begin a national investigation and debate on language education, particularly the role and place of modern foreign languages, both in schools, FE colleges and Higher Education
  • Is our (already limited) teaching of foreign languages starting too late? In many cases children do not have any exposure until secondary school.
  • Should a modern language become an essential key skill as part of the post-sixteen curriculum?

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