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Language learning vital to pandemic recovery

A coalition of partners is today putting forward to Government a strategy to boost language learning across the UK’s four jurisdictions, which has fallen in recent years.

Classroom learning

The coalition of partners, including the British Academy, the British Council, Universities UK, and the Association of School and College Leaders believe this strategy is essential to the economic and social strength of the UK as it emerges from COVID-19.

The economic cost of the UK’s linguistic underperformance, in terms of lost trade and investment has been estimated at 3.5 per cent of GDP. Languages are vital for fostering effective international cooperation and commercial links, as well as for improving educational performance, cognitive function and skills, opportunity, intercultural understanding, and social cohesion.

‘Towards a National Languages Strategy: Education and Skills’ is the first UK-wide languages initiative in a generation, and consists of short and medium-term actions for schools, colleges, universities, employers and others. It takes account of the different language and policy landscapes of the UK’s four jurisdictions.

Professor Janice Carruthers, Professor of French Linguistics at the School of Arts, English and Languages at Queen’s University Belfast and Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Priority Area Leadership Fellow for Modern Languages, was one of the researchers involved in preparing the proposals. Professor Carruthers said: “Language skills are crucial for economic growth, for building global partnerships and for our cultural life at home. Education is pivotal in achieving the changes that are urgently needed. Grounded in a strong research base, 'Towards a National Languages Strategy: Education and Skills' offers a set of strategic yet realistic proposals that are tailored to the different educational contexts across the UK.

“The UK-wide recommendations are directly relevant to Northern Ireland and a number of proposals have specific resonance in the local context. Putting these recommendations into place will help remove barriers to language learning and will encourage a much-needed boost to uptake in our schools and universities, with all sectors called upon to play a part in bringing about positive change.”

The proposals, which require modest funding and are easy-to-implement, include:

  • Creating a central point of access for language learning resources in a new ‘Languages UK’ portal
  • Reviewing grading and content for GCSE and A-level language exams to ensure a level playing field for students
  • Incentivising take up of languages post-16, through financial support and new qualifications
  • Determining best practice approaches for languages in primary schools and enabling teachers to deliver them
  • Creating further intensive schemes for language learningExtending ambassador and mentor schemes.


Across the UK, the numbers of pupils taking a language at GCSE and A-level have been falling in the last decade and the number of undergraduates in modern languages fell by 54 per cent between 2008–9 and 2017–18. With fewer students applying, at least 10 modern languages departments have closed in the last decade, and a further nine significantly downsized.

Professor Neil Kenny FBA, the British Academy’s languages lead said: “With the COVID-19 pandemic plunging the UK into its worst recession in living memory and exacerbating disparities in educational opportunity, and with the changing relationship to Europe necessitating the development of wider commercial and diplomatic relationships and the recalibration of existing ones, there has never been a more pressing need to take a strategic approach to language learning. Indeed, the question is, ‘If not now, then when?’

“Together with a coalition of partners, we have devised a joined-up and cost-effective strategy that tackles the language deficiency problem from a range of angles, from teaching in schools, colleges and community centres right through to university research, and across employers, both business and public sector.

“If Government and civil society together succeed in reversing the persistent decline in take up of languages throughout the education pipeline, the UK could become a linguistic powerhouse: more prosperous, productive, influential, innovative, knowledgeable, culturally richer, healthier and more socially cohesive. Languages should not just be for the socially advantaged, but for everyone. We must act soon to make this a reality.”

Vivienne Stern, Director, Universities UK International said: “We’re proposing a national languages strategy at a time when the UK is most in need of graduates with the skills to form invaluable international partnerships. International collaboration has been a vital part of the UK’s response to COVID-19, and will be a cornerstone of its recovery. If the UK government is serious about their ambitions for a Global Britain, we must upskill our graduates with the linguistic and cultural understanding to shape an outward-looking, post-COVID and post-Brexit UK.”

The British Academy and partners will host a webinar on 20 July 2020 to discuss the recommendations. Details will be available on their website: 


Featured Expert
Photo: Professor Janice Carruthers

Professor Janice Carruthers

Professor of French Linguistics/AHRC Leadership Fellow for Modern Languages
School of Arts, English and Languages (AEL)

Media inquiries to Zara McBrearty at Queen’s Communications Office on (T): 07795676858 or email: