Pandemic Impact on Language Learning in Northern Ireland
COVID-19 has ‘severely disrupted’ language learning in Northern Ireland, according to a British Council research report launched this month. The Language Trends Northern Ireland 2021 report was carried out by School of SSESW academic Ian Collen, Director of our Northern Ireland Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (NICILT), 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 research in 2019 showing 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.
- 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
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 pupils entitled to free school meals, where pupils did not have regular access to the internet.
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. 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.
When asked 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.
At primary level, the research found that language teaching in primary schools has all but collapsed due to COVID-19. 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.
Ian Collen said about the research findings: ‘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.’
Jonathan Stewart, Director, British Council Northern Ireland, said: ‘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. 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.’