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Learning a second language: Where did the U.K. go wrong?

With Brexit looming and the future of British and European relationships uncertain, we are currently really in the spotlight, especially in Europe, but even across the world. As new negotiations are made, I wonder if our general lack of language ability is becoming a hindrance.

Why are our language skills so far behind those of our European neighbours? How are we getting it so wrong, when other nations seem a lot more at ease in their bilingual communication? This week, eSense Translations reviews the history of our language education to try and find an answer to these questions and considers the difference between us and our European counterparts.


Britain has long multilingual history. Consider the Romans, the Vikings and the Norsemen, all invading from foreign lands and speaking in their native tongue.

The dominance of French in our foreign language learning can be traced right back to the invasion of the Normans in 1066 and it continues to be the most popular foreign language taught in schools today. In 2014-15, when teaching a second language became compulsory for primary schools (for those aged 7 and over), 77% of them chose French. Despite this, very few of us still have any real command of the language.

German became popular in the 18th century and this can be attributed heavily to the German House of Hanover taking over the monarchy in Britain. Still trailing the popularity of French, German nonetheless continued, until very recently, to have the second strongest presence in the foreign language teaching timetable.

It wasn’t until 2001 that Spanish overtook German to become the next most popular foreign language to be taken at GCSE level after French. Spanish had been gaining popularity throughout the 20th century due to its practical, commercial application and also as Spain had become an increasingly popular holiday destination in the 60’s. Despite its appeal and its perceived ‘ease’, it still took another 40 years to take second place from the more formal German language.

Russian and more recently Chinese have also been languages that have made appearances in schools’ curriculums.


The way in which languages are taught, and the skills they assess, has also seen quite a change over the last century. From informal tuition from a native speaker running classes in private languages schools or home tuition in the late 1800s, through translation style tasks and a strong focus on the grammar of a language to finally the foreign language lessons we recognise today, where each of the four skills; listening, speaking, reading and writing are taught and assessed almost as separate elements.

The previous focus on grammar and translation style tasks, often with bilingual texts, was actually pretty similar across Europe. These methods mirrored that of the traditional language teaching in classic Latin classes.


It’s only recently (over the last few decades) that teaching methods across all subjects have come up for public debate and there has been a fluctuating attitude towards the importance of studying modern languages. Perhaps that is why we have been left confused and mostly monolingual!

Modern language teaching was opened up to all schools, private, grammar and comprehensives in the latter part of the 20th century and took its place on the National Curriculum from 1988. This culminated in 82% of boys and 73% of girls taking a modern language at GCSE level in 1997. But, the learning of modern languages took a steep decline after 2004, when there was a change in opinion and it ceased to be a compulsory subject. At its lowest, only 47% of students took a language at GCSE level in 2007.

The decision by many students to drop their foreign language lessons could be attributed to the belief that it is more difficult to achieve good grades in these subjects. Also, the lack of choice of languages could be a reason behind our lack of motivation for language learning. With many schools only offering one or two options, being French, German or Spanish, perhaps the appeal is not there. On the contrary, learning Mandarin has been met with a largely positive attitude, due to China’s growing importance in the global market.


In contrast, 92% of European students are studying a foreign language. And this is only the average. In Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Austria, Romania and France, eSense Translations were surprised to discover that the learning rate is 100% and in many countries students are required to study at least one foreign language before completing secondary school.


Dropping foreign languages as a compulsory subject in the U.K. has clearly been looked upon as the wrong decision by educational establishments, who have been trying to reverse this step ever since. The government too made a complete U-turn in 2015 and, as mentioned, modern languages were made a compulsory part of the curriculum from the age of 7.

This has left us with a generation or two, where either a foreign language has been learnt up to GCSE or O level and then, in the main, not pursued as it is no longer viewed as a valuable skill, or, if younger, given the option to drop the language before any real basis was developed in the first place. Either way, it is now these generations that are struggling with foreign communication, with 62% of us only speaking English, and perhaps wishing that we had developed these skills when we had the chance.

However, it is never too late! Check our eSense Translations’ review of language learning apps to develop your foreign language skills.


By Lorna Paice

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