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Language lessons ‘hardest hit’ during Covid-19, new report reveals

COVID-19 has ‘severely disrupted’ language learning in Northern Ireland, according to new British Council research which launched today (Wednesday, 2 June 2021).

School children in a school setting

The Language Trends Northern Ireland 2021 report was carried out by Dr Ian Collen, Director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (NICILT) and from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s, and is part of a series of research on language learning by the British Council across the UK.

The report surveyed over 15 per cent of primary schools, 57 per cent of post-primaries and over 1,500 Year 9 pupils to learn more about language provision in Northern Ireland. It follows on from British Council’s inaugural research in 2019, which showed a steep decline in language learning over the past decade.

Key findings include:

  • 54 per cent of Year 9 pupils surveyed found language learning online harder during lockdown than their other subjects
  • Spanish is now the most popular language at A-level and if current trends continue will soon overtake French for the top spot at GCSE
  • It is likely that Irish will replace French in the next few years as the second most popular language at A-level
  • Language teaching in primary schools surveyed has all but collapsed due to Covid-19
  • Most pupils do not see languages being part of their future career and just 44 per cent of the 1,528 pupils who chose to respond are planning to do a language for GCSE
  • Grammar schools continue to devote much more time to compulsory language learning than secondary schools.

The report found that Covid-19 has had a ‘big impact’ on language lessons – with 43 per cent of teachers surveyed reporting that language teaching was ‘severely disrupted’ by the pandemic. This was especially true in schools with a higher than average percentage of its pupils entitled to free school meals, where pupils did not have regular access to the internet. In connection with this, the majority (54 per cent) of Year 9 pupils found language learning online harder than their other subjects during lockdown.

There has been a shift in the popularity of individual languages. Spanish is now the language most frequently taught in Northern Ireland's schools at A-level and if current trends continue it will soon overtake French for the top spot at GCSE.  It is also likely that Irish will replace French in the next few years as the second most popular language at A-level. However, this is due to French undergoing a steep decline since the turn of the millennium, while Irish has shown some slight growth. German in schools at both GCSE and A-level continues to decline – with only 67 pupils taking German at A-level in 2019 (the lowest figure on record) and 90 pupils in 2020.

Barriers cited for the decline include the perceived level of difficulty of languages at GCSE and A-level, the off-putting grading system, and structural barriers such as a lack of finance and inflexibility of school timetables.

Outside the ‘big four’ languages of French, German, Irish and Spanish, schools offer several languages as part of extra-curricular or enrichment subjects at Key Stage 3. These include Mandarin, Arabic, Polish, Portuguese and Persian (Farsi). 

When asked on the value of languages, almost all pupils do not see the potential for languages to be a part of their future careers – with just 44 per cent of the 1,528 Year 9 pupils surveyed planning to do a language for GCSE. However, motivation for language learning in Year 9 is still high with 67.3 per cent of those surveyed having a positive feeling towards language learning.

Research also shows that there is a stark contrast between language learning between grammar and secondary (non-grammar) schools – with grammar schools continuing to devote much more time to compulsory language learning. On average, teachers estimated 65 per cent of the Year 11 cohort in grammar schools were taking a language, as opposed to 23 per cent in non-grammar schools.

In terms of best practice, there is some excellent work going on in schools and classrooms, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Teachers have adapted and moved their teaching online, continue to use language assistants to develop pupils’ linguistic and cross-cultural skills and have kept the international dimension alive through initiatives and competitions run by external organisations.

At primary level, the research found that language teaching in primary schools has all but collapsed due to Covid-19. Just 15 per cent of responding schools were teaching a language, down from 55 per cent in 2019. This dip can be explained by the 38 per cent that said they usually teach a language but have temporarily suspended classes due to Covid-19. This result may also have been affected by the lower response rate from primary schools – with 15 per cent responding to this 2021 survey, compared to 27 per cent in 2019. 

Out of those teaching a language, the majority of those surveyed occasionally taught during class time, with two in every five schools teaching as part of an extra-curricular club. Major barriers to teaching languages in primary schools included a lack of funding, resources, and conflicting priorities – however, just one in 20 schools said that their reason for not teaching languages was that they were not convinced of the benefits.

Speaking about the research findings, Dr Collen from Queen’s University Belfast said: The low uptake of modern languages at GCSE in the majority of non-selective schools is my main concern. We now know why young people are put off languages; it is time to act to save the discipline. To appeal to a broader range of young people, policy makers need to urgently review the content of the Northern Ireland Curriculum, as well as adapt the mode of assessment of GCSE Modern Languages.

Also commenting on the research was Jonathan Stewart, Director, British Council Northern Ireland, he said: The past year has been extremely challenging for schools and the findings illustrate the barriers which pupils have experienced in learning languages through remote learning. However, it is encouraging to see how schools have been able to adapt and pivot to online learning and in many cases maintain their international connections. The research also points to other reasons to be optimistic, including positive engagement from pupils and the motivation of teachers – but there are clearly challenges for us all in making the case for the long term benefits of being able to speak another language.

“At the British Council, we are committed to providing opportunities for schools in Northern Ireland to connect internationally which enhances the understanding of other cultures and languages. Schools can employ a language assistant, download many of our free classroom resources, and visit or partner with a school in another country.

The Language Trends Northern Ireland report will officially launch online today (Wednesday, June 2) at 4.00pm. Dr Ian Collen, Director of NICILT at Queen’s, will discuss the headline findings from the report – and there will also be the chance to hear from a panel of teachers and pupils, on their views of language learning in Northern Ireland.

To register for the event, or to read the full report, visit: https://nireland.britishcouncil.org/programmes/education/language-trends-northern-ireland or follow #LanguageTrendsNI on Twitter.

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