MFL in the UK: The fight for languages in a stem-dominated education system

It’s undeniable that modern foreign languages are often set aside for the more favourable STEM subjects. Is this due to a lack of knowledge behind the benefits of studying languages at school or university? Or are STEM subjects like maths, biology and chemistry seen as more desirable career paths for employers?

As the co-founder of a modern language related business, Language Learning Scotland, we aim to make language learning resources more accessible to students, whilst also promoting the study of languages beyond high school. Languages play a vital role in global communication, regardless of the industry. They help break down cultural barriers between countries and organisations in business, whether that be trading or negotiation; they improve awareness of other cultures and traditions and allow you to meet new people among a variety of other things.

So why are modern languages in decline? The benefits have always been clear and the facts concise, so what is the driving factor that is turning people away from these subjects? While in recent years there have been surges in the number of people studying Spanish or Mandarin at schools across the UK, the more traditionally taught French and German have suffered a disastrous decline. In February 2019, the BBC reported that modern language learning was at its lowest level in the UK since the turn of the millennium.

It is important that we get these numbers up, as this is not just a matter of the country having lower second language skills compared to the rest of Europe. An advisor at the British Council, Vicky Gough, said “If we don’t reverse recent trends we will be locked into a downward spiral of fewer pupils studying languages at GCSE, tiny and unsustainable numbers at A-level, the continuing closure of university departments, and fewer teachers”.

However, there are things that we can do to help aid this decline. Promoting the benefits of studying languages, not just the health benefits but the educational and employment benefits, is key to future success. A recent Guardian article discussed the warped perception that those with a STEM degree are more sought after by employers, and that in fact those with humanities, arts and social science degrees get jobs in 8 out of the 10 fastest growing sectors of the economy.

You can read the rest of this article in our November issue