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. But is it locking people growing up in Anglophone countries in an English-speaking bubble? An important part of Creative Multilingualism’s work was promoting language learning in the UK, engaging with policymakers on provision of language teaching in schools, and promoting fair and effective language exams.

People in countries where English is not the first or main 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 (at least) two languages at their disposal, but also the well-trained capability for learning further languages as well as the cultural flexibility that engagement with different languages gives them.

Policy-making on language learning in countries where English is not the main 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 (MFL) has been under pressure for decades, with a key moment being the Government’s decision to remove languages from the range of compulsory subjects at GCSE, the exam taken at the age of around sixteen. 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 Key Stage 2 (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 was diluted with the introduction of "Progress 8" as the key performance measure, since it made inclusion of a language as one of the required EBacc subjects 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 were however limited owing to unsystematic implementation. Since it included no regulation concerning the primary school’s choice of language(s), provided only for minimal curriculum time (often at most one lesson a week), and primary schools frequently lack teacher expertise, it did not affect secondary schools still needing to start from scratch in MFL at age 11.

British Council: Compulsory Languages at Primary Schools: Does it work?

GCSE and A level syllabuses

Decision-making on what is taught in schools in England is the responsibility of the Department for Education (DfE). The DfE is consequently responsible for designing the broad outline of the exam content for GCSE and A level subjects including Modern Foreign Languages. 

A new system of assessment was developed for the GCSE and A level in MFL for first examination in 2018, in the context of a general revision of qualifications which was intended . An innovation was the formal involvement of university teachers in the process of designing the A level content (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 proved problematic because the panel did not include school teachers, and the process was rushed. New elements in the A level syllabus included the reintroduction of set texts (literature and film), which enabled critical skills and understanding of content to be assessed; assessment of grammatical understanding; and an individual research element 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 included the abolition of AS Level as part of the two-year A level course, and restricted funding of a fourth A level, both of which tended to have a negative impact on A level numbers in MFL.

The revisions did not bring an increase in numbers entering for language qualifications, and the exam content both at GCSE and A level remains a controversial issue that reflects differing attitudes concerning what language teaching should focus on and what type of content is likely to improve take-up among learners. A further review of GCSE content in 2019/20 prompted Creative Multilingualism to conduct two teacher surveys in order to give prominence to their voices. They were also intended to provide a robust basis for Creative Multilingualism’s submissions in response to public consultations on the proposed content by the DfE and the exam regulator Ofqual.

Ask the Teachers! GCSE curriculum and exam content survey (2020)

Teacher survey on the DfE’s proposal for new GCSE content in Modern Foreign Languages

DfE consultation on proposed new GCSE subject content for MFL (French, German, Spanish): Draft Response from Creative Multilingualism

AS and A Level subject content

AQA Qualifications

Pearson Qualifications

‘Severe’ and/or ‘unreliable’ grading

From around 2010, the drop in candidate numbers for qualifications in Modern Foreign Languages went hand in hand with annual complaints from schools that results were depressed by comparison with other subjects, and that outcomes were 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, and a particularly low number given the likelihood of candidates with native or near-native speaker advantage performing at the highest level.

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 an enduringly negative impact on numbers in MFL.

Concerns voiced by teachers, head teachers and the subject community prompted Ofqual to work with the exam boards and the MFL community – including the involvement of university teachers – to address these concerns and gain a better understanding of the parameters contributing to actual and/or perceived grading anomalies. In November 2018 they published a policy decision concerning A level in MFL, stating that they would not be making an adjustment to grading. A small adjustment to GCSE grading in French and German was however announced in 2019, bringing these languages into line with Spanish, where severe grading was less marked.

Despite the widespread and long-standing concerns, severe grading remains a key factor responsible for depressing numbers taking MFL qualifications in English schools, coupled with aspects of the examining process that make the exams themselves excessively demanding. In 2019, Katrin Kohl (Principal Investigator of the Creative Multilingualism programme) produced a response to Ofqual’s policy decision concerning severe grading at A level, arguing that an adjustment was essential. Read her letter to Ofqual plus supporting documentation on: severe grading, A level exam analysis, and GCSE grading issues.

Scotland’s 1 + 2 Languages policy

The Scottish Government implemented a “1 + 2 Languages” policy in 2020/21 to support 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.

1 + 2 Languages policy

Qualifications in ‘lesser-taught’ languages

While the main languages taught in UK schools are French, German and Spanish, UK learners benefit from the availability of GCSE and A level qualifications in a much wider range of languages, reflecting the multicultural and multilingual nature of the UK. These languages include Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Panjabi, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish and Urdu. Many committed language teachers are involved in teaching these languages, often in ‘supplementary schools’ supported by language communities.

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’.

Community Languages Saved to Ensure Diverse Curriculum Continues

Creative Multilingualism consistently promoted the benefits of the UK’s language diversity. A wide range of initiatives and projects showcased the variety of languages spoken in the UK, and demonstrated their value for individual speakers, education, careers, the creative industries and the country as a whole.

We Are Children of the World – A Multilingual Concert & Teaching Resources

Multilingual Performance Project & Multilingual Drama Teaching Activities

Slanguages in the Creative Economy - A Report

Creativity with Languages in Schools - A Report

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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

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)

Interactive Language Map: mapping foreign language teaching and research

Languages for the future (British Council)

Languages, Society & Policy. A journal connecting research in linguistics and languages with policy and the public (LSP, published by MEITS)

Languages: The State of the Nation (British Academy)

Language Trends – annual surveys (British Council)

'Real Lives' examinations – Chartered Institute of Linguists

The Value of Languages (University of Cambridge)