Year on year, the number of students choosing to study languages in British schools falls.

Fiona Hartley, who has been a French teacher since 1986, has been part of the fight against this decline, whilst still campaigning for the curriculum to remain relevant in modern society.

In recent years, there has been a steady decline in the number of students choosing to study languages at A-Level, from 25,338 in 2022 to 23,486 in 2023.

Fiona says that the education system perpetuates this decline. She said: “Some primary schools… give the odd word here and there… and then [students] go to secondary school and they’re given the option of not continuing with the language… Being given the option perpetuates that feeling that languages are difficult.”

Moreover, she remarks on the significant meritocratic pressure for “many teachers and schools [who] are under pressure to get good grades”.

This influences students’ mindsets, she says. 

“Very often they will say to us it’s because I can more easily get an A* or A in another subject," she said.

Fiona agrees that the current syllabus is too content-heavy, focusing more on academia than “language skills applicable in the real world”.

Despite this, language skills remain hugely relevant in modern-day society. Despite the increasing use of artificial intelligence for translation, native English speakers with fluency in another language remain hugely necessary.

Fiona said: “If we are going to build a good future for our nation, both politically, [and] economically, then we need to have the language skills. We don’t want to be the only nation that can’t converse with the European Union, [or other] international organisations."

She also observes the increase in English-speaking viewers consuming foreign language media on Netflix and other streaming channels.

She said: “I’m quite hopeful… to see people have seen French series like ‘Lupin’ with French subtitles, [making French] culture more accessible.”

Although she believes being immersed in a country is the best way to pick up a language. 

Schools are the most accessible and effective way to formally learn a language, even teaching children who grew up in bilingual households the grammatical and written rules that they had not learnt otherwise.

Aside from strictly French lessons, there are schools where the history and geography lessons would be in French. However, many schools lack the resources and teachers themselves with sufficient language skills.  

The Department for Education wants to improve the number of Year 10 pupils choosing to study a language as a core subject, as part of the EBacc, from 39 per cent in 2022, to 90 per cent of pupils by 2025. 

Fiona agrees with this approach of placing languages as a core subject but maintains that the government is still not doing enough to combat the decline, having been to the House of Lords just after the most recent A-Level was proposed in 2015.

She said: “We need to point out that our young people are competing with Europeans who tend to have very good language skills.” 

Despite this, Fiona emphasises the importance of learning a language and encourages anyone who wants to. 

She said: “It is such a mind-broadening thing. I think it’s really important … not only does it improve communication skills, but it makes us more open-minded to the rest of the world.”

  • This article was written by Caitlin Dela Cruz, from Peter Symonds College, as part of Newsquest's Young reporter scheme.