Brussels, 13 September 2013
Commission highlights benefits of foreign language skills for UK students and business
More needs to be done to encourage British students to study languages at A Level and university, according to the European Commission. The importance of foreign language skills is self-evident in all EU countries, given that businesses increasingly operate internationally: more than half of the UK's trade is with the rest of Europe - and its businesses need staff who can speak the language of their customers. The Commission will underline this at a conference during the London Language Show next month (18 October).
The statistics on foreign language learning in the UK present a mixed picture.
The number of UK universities offering degrees in the two most popular languages has plunged by 30% for French (from 105 courses to 70) and more than 50% (from 105 to 50) for German studies since 2000. The number of 18 year olds applying to study European languages has also fallen by nearly 17% since 2010, according to UCAS, the higher-education admissions management organisation. This August's A-Level results again showed a decrease in entrants for French and German, with both subjects attracting half the number of entrants compared with a decade ago.
The picture is brighter at GCSE level: UK Government figures show a near 16% growth in the number of students taking foreign language GCSEs this year, a rise in part attributed to the introduction of the English Baccalaureate performance measure. Experts believe that this increase will have a significant impact on the numbers taking languages at A level or university in future. Another cause for optimism is that from September 2014, compulsory language teaching in England's primary schools will start at age 7.
The conference organised by the Commission at the London Language Show is aimed at strengthening awareness of the economic and social benefits of language learning. More than 10 000 people are expected to visit the show (Olympia Central, 18-20 October), which regularly attracts major business recruiters, SMEs and education specialists.
Androulla Vassiliou, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, will attend the event with officials from the Commission's education and language departments. The UK government will be represented by Elizabeth Truss MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare.
Commissioner Vassiliou said: 'We applaud the UK for encouraging more young people to study foreign languages at A Level and university. Multilingualism brings significant benefits. People with language skills are more employable and will help to ensure that businesses are more competitive and successful. I am also delighted that the UK strongly supports our new 'Erasmus+' funding programme: over the next 7 years it will provide grants for more than 4 million young people across Europe to study, train or volunteer in another country. This international experience helps to increase foreign language skills, self-confidence and versatility. Erasmus+ will be open to students, apprentices and youth workers, among others. I hope we will have plenty of applicants from Britain."
Erasmus+, the EU new programme for education, training, youth and sport, will be launched in January 2014. The programme is due to be adopted by the European Parliament and the Council (Member State Ministers) later this autumn. The Commission envisages it will have a budget of around €14.5 billion between 2014 and 2020. The programme will be managed by national agencies in each Member State.
In March 2002, heads of state and government agreed that children should be taught at least two foreign languages from a very early age (the Barcelona Summit 'mother tongue plus two' benchmark) to improve the mastery of basic skills.
Foreign languages in schools: In most European countries the teaching of one foreign language is compulsory from primary school level and the trend is increasing. More than 60% of all pupils across Europe start learning a second foreign language at lower secondary level and about the same percentage study two foreign languages at higher secondary level (GCSE equivalent). The 2012 European Survey on Language Competences, which tested more than 50 000 pupils aged 14-15 across Europe, found the proportion competent in their first foreign language ranged from 82% in Malta and Sweden (where English is the first foreign language) to only 14% in France (learning English) and 9% in England (learning French).
The European Commission has proposed a European benchmark which aims for at least 50% of all 15-year-olds in Europe to be 'independent users' of one foreign language and that 75 % of all pupils should learn two foreign languages at lower secondary level.
The English Baccalaureate is a performance measure, introduced in the 2010 performance tables. The measure recognises where pupils have secured a C grade or better across a core of academic subjects – English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language. These subjects are highly valued by employers and universities.
For more information
UCAS: Report on subject demand
Joint Council for Qualifications: A Level entrants statistics
Eurobarometer: 98% say language learning is good for their children (June 2012)
Follow Androulla Vassiliou onTwitter @VassiliouEU