Languages in the UK

The rise of English as the global lingua franca has gained unprecedented force from the opportunities opened up by the internet, where English plays by far the most powerful role.

People in countries where English is not the native language have the disadvantage that they have to learn a non-native language in order to compete on a global stage. But that is becoming an advantage where they learn English already at an early age and then not only have two languages at their disposal, but also the well-trained capability for learning further languages as well as the cultural flexibility engagement with different languages gives them.

Policy-making on language learning in countries where English is not the native language is easy: you focus your primary resources on teaching English at all levels, you can rely on the support of the population, and take-up isn’t a problem because English is the cool thing to know in any case. Things get difficult when it comes to other languages – here all countries face the same challenges of prioritisation and resourcing, but that problem is a minor detail by comparison with that facing policy-makers in Anglophone countries.

In the UK, the take-up for Modern Foreign Languages has been under pressure for decades, with a key moment being the Government’s decision to remove languages from the range of compulsory GCSE subjects. Reportedly it was assumed by the Education Secretary at the time – against advice to the contrary from the MFL community – that this would not seriously affect GCSE numbers. In fact the impact was catastrophic and put MFL on an inexorable downward trajectory that is still continuing.

Languages in other Anglophone countries

All countries in which the main official language is English are currently having to contend with the impact this has on language learning and linguistic diversity. While young people in non-Anglophone countries have a powerful incentive to learn at least one language other than their own and there tends to be coherent investment in teaching English since it is the global lingua franca, young people in Anglophone countries tend to remain in an English bubble.

Are there lessons to be learned from other Anglophone countries? A report on America's Languages: Investing in Language Learning for the 21st Century offers a wide range of recommendations on improving access to as many languages as possible, for people of every age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background.

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Important developments in policy-making and MFL school qualifications

Inclusion of a language in the English Baccalaureate at GCSE level

Coupled with introduction of a compulsory language at KS2, this initiative constituted a welcome signal of commitment to Modern Foreign Languages by the Government since it embedded languages in the EBacc performance measure. While initially the EBacc was introduced as optional in 2011, it was announced as becoming compulsory in 2015. However, the positive effect has been diluted with the introduction of Progress 8 as the performance measure that counts, since inclusion of a language as one of the required EBacc subjects is optional.

Compulsory language in primary schools at Key Stage 2 (age 7-11)

This curriculum change introduced in 2014 was important in establishing language learning as a normal part of a child’s education. Its practical benefits for secondary level language competence should not however be over-estimated – since there is no regulation concerning the primary school’s choice of language(s), curriculum time is minimal (it may only be one lesson a week), and schools often lack teacher expertise, secondary schools still need to start from scratch in MFL at age 11.

New GCSE and A level syllabuses for teaching from 2016 and first examination in 2018

A new system of assessment has been developed for all GCSE and A level subjects which is having a significant impact on MFL teaching. An innovation was the formal involvement of university teachers in the process (A Level Content Advisory Board, focusing on French, German and Spanish); while this was in principle welcome in order to counteract the disjuncture between teaching of Modern Foreign Languages in schools and Modern Languages in universities, implementation was problematic because the panel did not include school teachers, and the process was rushed. New elements in the syllabuses include the reintroduction of set texts (literature and film), which enables critical skills and understanding of content to be assessed, assessment of grammatical understanding, and an individual research element that will be examined orally.

In the process of developing the qualifications, the exam board OCR pulled out because of difficulties with getting their proposed syllabus approved by Ofqual, leaving only AQA and Edexcel (Pearson) among the English exam boards offering qualifications in MFL.

Key areas of change include the abolition of the AS as part of the two-year A level course, and restricted funding of a fourth A level, both of which are likely to have a negative impact on A level numbers in MFL. A further area of change is in the system of grading.

Significant problem areas include the lack of time between publication of the specifications and the start of teaching, the lack of funding and time for adequate CPD given the new requirements of teachers in terms of teaching content, and the simultaneous introduction of the new GCSE and A level when the A level is designed to build on the revised GCSE.  

AS and A Level subject content

‘Severe’ and/or ‘unreliable’ grading

The drop in candidate numbers for A level in Modern Foreign Languages has gone hand in hand in recent years by annual complaints from schools that results are depressed by comparison with other subjects, and that outcomes are unpredictable and unreliable. National statistics and internal school statistics tended to corroborate that concern, especially in light of the fact that cohorts in MFL typically contain a significant number of candidates with a native speaker advantage. The problem was seen to be particularly marked at the top end, with a relatively low number of A* results.

At a time when schools have become highly concerned about league tables, and pupils in state and independent schools scrutinise internal and external statistics in order to ensure that they are avoiding subjects that might endanger their university entrance profile, this problem has exerted a considerable negative impact on numbers in MFL.

Ofqual has been working with the exam boards and the MFL community – including HE involvement – to address these concerns and gain a better understanding of the parameters that may be contributing to actual and/or perceived grading anomalies. In November 2018 they published their policy decision  stating that they would not be making an adjustment to grading. 

However, the issues have not been resolved. In a 2019 BBC survey of secondary schools, 76% of respondents in England cited ‘perceptions that the course/exams are too difficult’ as the factor with the biggest negative impact on MFL provision. 

Professor Katrin Kohl (who leads the Creative Multilingualism programme) has produced a response to the policy decision arguing that an adjustment is necessary. Read her letter to Ofqual plus supporting documentation on: severe grading,  A level exam analysis, and GCSE grading issues.

Qualifications in ‘lesser-taught’ languages

Following the redevelopment of GCSE and A level specifications in 2015/16, the exam boards announced that they would not be developing qualifications especially at A level for most of the less commonly taught languages, owing to lack of critical mass. Campaigning by the MFL community and support from MPs resulted in a reversal of this decision. In April 2016 the Government announced that qualifications in community languages would continue to be offered in order to secure a ‘diverse curriculum’.

Scotland’s 1 + 2 Languages policy

The Scottish Government’s “1 + 2 Languages” policy supports languages provision for all school pupils from age 5 upwards. The aim is to give every child the opportunity to learn a modern language from P1 onwards and a second modern language from P5 onwards. The policy is due to be implemented by 2020.

1 + 2 Languages policy

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Arts and Humanities Research Council

Association for Language Learning

British Academy

British Council

Chartered Institute of Linguists

Independent Schools’ Modern Languages Association (ISMLA)

University Council of Modern Languages

Speak to the Future | The Campaign for Languages


New CLIL Centre of Excellence at the University of Westminster

Learning Through Languages UK (National Centre for CLIL at Aston university)

While CILT in England and Wales were closed down, Scotland’s National Centre for Languages continues to thrive. Its vision is “to promote and support the delivery of high quality language learning within a climate which celebrates all languages”.


British Academy Briefing: On Languages

Born Global report (British Academy)

Languages for the future (British Council)

Languages: The State of the Nation (British Academy)

Language Trends – annual surveys (British Council)

The Value of Languages (University of Cambridge)

Interactive Language Map: mapping foreign language teaching and research

'Real Lives' examinations – Chartered Institute of Linguists