Give teens a reason to study a language

  • Give teens a reason to study a language

Language uptake in secondary schools has been steadily on the decline since it became non compulsory at GCSE. Numbers at ‘A’ level are at an all time low and language classes are often not viable. As we move to a two-year linear ‘A’ level the expectation is that numbers will fall even lower. Fewer than half of GCSE students take a language exam – and although making languages a compulsory ‘EBacc’ subject may help to redress the balance, the move towards linear final exams and inclusion of content such as literature may mean students will neither cope with nor enjoy the subject. In fact the majority of young people who do not pick a language say it is because it is too hard and furthermore because they do not see the point.

And yet there are frequent reports in the UK news about the need for language skills to operate effectively in the global economy. According to the department of business, innovation and skills (BIS) the lack of language skills could be costing the UK up to £48 billion per year. The CBI claims that although 70% of UK businesses value language skills only 36% are satisfied with those they have in their workforce.

“As our ‘Languages for the Future’ report highlights, languages matter to the UK’s future prosperity,” observes Mark Herbert, head of schools programmes at the British Council.

“Businesses are crying out for people with language skills so we need far more of our young people to learn languages both to boost their own job prospects and to ensure that the UK stays competitive on the world stage.

More than that, understanding another language is a natural route to understanding another culture – and an open mind and an international outlook have never been more important. Whilst it’s good to see greater emphasis on languages in UK schools policies and some signs of progress on uptake, such as this year’s 12% rise in the number of students taking Chinese at GCSE, the best future for the UK would see many more young people embracing language study.”

Making it meaningful

So if the need for language skills in business is becoming more crucial, why does the curriculum not reflect this? Why is there a clear gap between GCSE/A level content and how languages are applied to the workplace? Business language vocabulary is not a key part of traditional language qualifications and neither assessments nor final exams include practical scenarios that reflect the application of linguistic skills in work related scenarios. Is it any wonder that many students do not see the relevance for their future career prospects?

IN 2014, the Language Alliance teamed up with the Institute of Linguists Educational Trust to create a level 2 business language qualification which focuses on the practical application of language skills in order to raise employability prospects. This was trialled in a number of schools, colleges and universities in order to provide students with the opportunity to boost their employability skills. The feedback has been extremely positive and an increasing number of institutions are offering this course to their students.

Yewlands Academy in Sheffield has over 20 KS4 learners attending an extra Spanish class once per week to study for the Certificate in Languages for Business. Most are GCSE learners but interestingly, a number of students who did not opt for the GCSE also expressed a keen interest in taking the course. Students are taking this qualification seriously and are enthusiastically turning up after school to take the course, and their parents are keen for them to gain this qualification as they believe it will look very impressive on their CV and be useful when entering the job market. “I want to be able to understand more about using languages in business and this is the perfect opportunity for me,” says student Emily Storey.

Learners cover many business scenarios in the qualification (which combines assessments and practical exams) such as how to write a job application, read and respond to business correspondence, make a sales pitch, deal with customer complaints and understand travel announcements as well as booking accommodation and tickets.

In a recent article, Susan Cousin, principal of Yewlands, commented that “it’s time English students challenged the common perception that we lag behind other countries in mastering languages other than our own.” It is hoped that with the growing interest in the CLB, the government will recognise its value and merit and include it in the performance 8 measures so that language learning can appeal to more students and boost the number of those leaving with practical language skills.


Juliet Park is a director of MFL at Yewlands Academy and SLE for the Wakefield Academy Trust, lead course developer and trainer for AQA, regional advisor for ALL and lead practitioner for the SSAT. She is a specialist in business languages and has recently pioneered the brand new business language certificate with the Institute of Linguists.