Selling Languages: Challenges and solutions (12 Nov 2003)

Date: 10 November, 2003
Location: The Women's Library, London Metropolitan University
Event type: Workshop

Programme | Event report

A useful day
which raised
some pertinent

- Workshop attendee

Past event summary

This event examined some of the findings of recent research into attitudes towards language learning, the effectiveness of primary language learning and ab initio degree programmes and explored curriculum developments that have been adopted to respond to the changing needs of students. The National Recognition Scheme (Languages Ladder) and its relation to progression in language learning at all levels and the future of the year abroad were also considered.


10.15 – 10.40 The effectiveness of early language learning: primary languages in Scotland
Joanna McPake(University of Stirling)
10.40 – 11.05 Ab initio language degrees
Susan Stuart and David Bowker (University of Paisley)
11.05 – 11.20 Coffee
11.20 – 12.20 Attitudes to language learning:
1. GCSE/post GCSE

Linda Fisher (University of Cambridge)
2. A Level/post A level
Catherine Watts (University of Brighton)
3. The ATLAS Project 14-19s
Terry King (University College London)
12.20 – 12.45 Response and discussion
Keith Marshall (University of Bangor)
12.45 – 13.30 Lunch
13.30 – 14.15 Progression in Languages:
The Languages Ladder - The National Recognition Scheme for Languages

Kate Green (DfES)
14.15 – 14.40 Foundation Degrees
Tim Connell (City University)
14.40 – 14.55 Tea
14.55 – 15.20 The 3-year degree
John Russell (University of Bradford)
15.20 – 15.45 Response and discussion
David Nott (University of Lancaster)

Event report: Selling Languages: Challenges and solutions

by Angela Gallagher-Brett

The effectiveness of early language learning: primary languages in Scotland

Joanna McPake (Scottish CILT/University of Stirling)

Joanna McPake reported on a survey conducted by Scottish CILT on behalf of the Scottish Executive Education Department into the effectiveness of foreign language learning in Scottish primary schools. Over 2000 students were assessed in P7 (the last year of primary schooling) and S2 (the second year of secondary schooling). Students’ competence in listening, speaking, reading (S2 only), writing (S2 only) and knowledge about language were assessed in line with the Revised 5-14 Guidelines.

The results showed clear evidence of progression between P7 and S2 despite the generic decline in performance in all subjects at the start of secondary education. In particular, S2 students were found to have a more extensive vocabulary.

More detailed analysis of findings revealed that students learning German significantly outperformed students learning French. The reasons for this are unclear. It was, however, suggested that this might be partly due to the fact that the pronunciation of German is closer to Scottish English than French.

In terms of gender, girls were found to perform better than boys although the margin of difference between them varied considerably.

It was concluded that the experience of learning languages in Scottish primary schools represents a good opportunity for learners. This augurs well for proposals that will ensure that all primary school students in England receive an entitlement to foreign language learning. It was further recommended that the competence of 18 year-olds in Scotland who were introduced to foreign languages in primary education should be assessed in order to determine whether there could be positive implications for languages in higher education.

The full report of the First Survey of Modern Languages can be accessed at:

Ab Initio language degrees

David Bowker (University of Paisley)

David Bowker presented interim findings of a CILT-funded research project being conducted into ab initio language degrees in Scottish universities.

The opportunity to study for a languages degree ab initio has always been available in the less widely used lesser taught languages (LWULT) but this has now been expanded to include a broader range, although provision of ab initio languages through Institution Wide Language Programmes (IWLPs), a common feature in English higher education institutions, is much less frequent in Scotland.

Data for the project were collected by means of questionnaires sent to ab initio coordinators in language departments and a series of follow-up interviews which are still ongoing.

Findings so far indicate that ab initio courses are very popular and frequently oversubscribed. The content of courses focuses on the need to prepare students for further study and includes coverage of all four language skills, grammar and, in some cases, translation, history and literature.

With regard to the entry-level qualifications of students on ab initio courses, a varied and flexible approach has been found to be in operation, although it was reported that French, in particular, does attract some false beginners.

The qualifications and amount of experience of teachers on these courses has been found to vary greatly with the majority having taught for more than three years. Teachers have reported that ab initio teaching is rewarding on account of the high level of motivation among students.

Ab initio students usually join the mainstream after between one and two years of study. In some instances, there is a low take-up of students into the second year but those who do continue their language study tend to do very well and can succeed to honours degree level.

Attitudes to language learning

1. GCSE/post GCSE

Linda Fisher (Cambridge University)

Linda Fisher presented findings from her research which examined the reasons why students either choose to continue or not to continue studying a language post GCSE. Data were collected by means of student questionnaires, student focus group interviews and teacher interviews.

The principle reason for choosing to continue studying a language was found to be enjoyment. The main reasons for not choosing to study a language included lack of enjoyment, lack of confidence and perceived difficulty of language study. Despite this, the majority of students expressed the view that languages are important and that British people need to learn them.

More detailed analysis of these findings revealed that most students considered GCSE examinations in languages to be more difficult than in other subjects. Many were unsure as to whether or not they were good at languages, despite being in top sets. Discontent about the curriculum was also apparent and the GCSE syllabus was thought to be boring and repetitive with little time for students to use the language meaningfully. Grammar seemed to be an area of considerable tension as students reported that they did not like grammar but that there should, nevertheless, be more emphasis on it. Guidance from MFL teachers, parents and careers teachers as to the benefits of language learning also emerged as areas of weakness in this study. Additionally, students reported that although their parents believed languages to be important, only just over one third of them were able to help with language study.

Linda Fisher concluded her presentation by highlighting the fact that despite student dissatisfaction with various aspects of their language learning experience, they did consider themselves to have been well-taught by their language teachers. She suggested that moves towards greater learner autonomy might help to bring about an improvement in attitudes overall.

2. A Level/post A Level

Catherine Watts (University of Brighton)

Catherine Watts’ research explored the decline in take-up of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) at degree level and addressed four main research questions:

  • The reasons why sixth formers who were studying a language at A Level did not want to do a language degree
  • The reasons why undergraduates did not choose to do a language degree when they could have done;
  • The reasons attributed to the decline in take-up of language degrees by heads of department in schools and sixth form colleges;
  • The reasons attributed to the decline in take-up of language degrees by languages programme leaders in universities.

Data were collected by means of questionnaires and focus group interviews. Findings revealed a general climate of negativity around language learning and a negative A Level experience among students. Students reported a lack of confidence in their ability to learn languages along with a belief that native speakers of the language would be preferred in the employment market. A dissatisfaction with A Level topics and concern about the perceived gap between GCSE and A Level were also in evidence.

Teachers and lecturers shared students’ concern about the climate of negativity but they also attributed the decline in take-up to poor language teaching in schools, vocational concerns among students and professional roles and practice. They additionally complained about the lack of positive role models for students to follow.

A full report on this research is available at:

Catherine Watts is currently researching the reasons why students of AS German do not continue to A2 German.

3. The ATLAS Project

Terry King (University College London)

Terry King reported on the findings of the ATLAS Project which is jointly funded by The Nuffield Foundation, Centre for British Teachers (CfBT) and University College London. This has surveyed attitudes to the following aspects of language learning:

  • Language learning both in school and generally;
  • Continuing language learning post 16;
  • Languages and jobs;
  • Language learning and computers/websites;
  • Opportunities to taste new languages.

The ATLAS Project is subsequently developing web-based interactive taster materials in LWULT such as Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Polish, Portuguese and Russian.

Data were collected by means of questionnaires and findings revealed a number of reasons for disaffection with language learning. These included low self-esteem, perceived difficulty of languages, the gap between GCSE and A Level and fear of a similar gap at university, lack of enjoyment, mixed-ability grouping, teaching methods, too much testing and too little use of I.T. Despite this, most students expressed the view that learning languages is important and that it widens horizons.

As far as intention to continue studying languages post 16 is concerned, a significant difference in attitudes between students in Years 10 and 11 was reported as follows:

Intention to continue language study post 16:

  Yes No Don’t know
Year 10 18% 35% 44%
Year 11 23% 58% 16%

Although the majority of students believed that languages enhanced job prospects, they cited career plans as the main reason for not continuing with language study.

The speaker concluded with some recommendations for higher education institutions, which included working more closely with schools to target Year 9 students when selling careers with languages, putting the enjoyment back into language learning, selling LWULT languages and exploiting the use of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL).

The ATLAS Project website can be viewed at:

Response and discussion

(Led by Keith Marshall, University of Bangor)

The following points were raised in relation to the morning’s presentations:

  • The decline in take-up at Higher Grade in languages in Scotland appears to have levelled out in recent years. This coincides with the introduction of the primary initiative a decade ago. This could have positive implications for the future of languages in England.
  • The perception that languages are more difficult than other subjects is not borne out by A Level results as a higher proportion of A grades are awarded in MFL than in other subjects.
  • In 2003 an actual increase in the number of candidates in MFL A Levels was recorded. However, a recent survey (Marshall, 2003) suggests that languages are now optional at Key Stage 4 in over half of secondary schools.
  • Language departments in higher education institutions must collaborate more closely with each other and with schools.

The National Recognition Scheme (Languages Ladder)

Kate Green (Department for Education and Skills)

Kate Green, Project Director, explained the background to the work on the National Recognition Scheme currently being conducted by the DfES. A need for such a voluntary recognition scheme was identified in the National Languages Strategy and its aim is ‘to complement existing qualification frameworks and give people credit for their language skills’.

The Languages Ladder is to be made up of six stages: Breakthrough, Preliminary, Intermediate, Advanced, Proficiency, Mastery. These stages are to be mapped against existing qualifications as well as National Curriculum and Common European Framework levels. Assessment will consist of a combination of external and teacher assessment procedures and will involve the use of both online and just-in-time testing. Each of the four language skills will be assessed discretely, enabling students to be assessed in just one skill if they so wish.

The scheme is to be piloted from Autumn 2004 and there will be a national rollout at the first three stages in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Punjabi and Urdu in 2005. Further languages will be added and stages developed between 2005 and 2008.

For more details visit the DfES languages website at:

Foundation degrees

Tim Connell (City University)

Tim Connell began his presentation by drawing attention to the rationales behind the introduction of foundation degrees. These relate to:

  • Achieving the government’s target of persuading 50% of 18 to 30 year-olds to enter higher education;
  • Removing perceived gaps in higher education provision;
  • Reducing social exclusion;
  • Promoting equal opportunities;
  • Encouraging non-traditional students into higher education.

Foundation degrees are set to become the main work-focused higher education qualification. They are required to include a strong practical focus with a work-based element and a clear link between theory and good professional practice. Students will need to complete 240 credits over the two-year period of study and are likely to be able to opt for more flexible modes of assessment than on more traditional courses.

The potential for languages to be incorporated into foundation degree programmes would seem to lie in the areas of business, tourism and I.T. The inclusion of non-traditional and community languages could also be developed. An example was described of a foundation degree in public service interpreting which is being launched at City University and which has involved the establishment of links with both the University of London’s School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a training group working with refugees in East London.

A number of possible problems with the move to foundation degrees were also raised. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has warned that vigorous standards will need to be maintained and stressed that students on these courses will need to develop higher-level analytical and reflective skills. Additionally, restructuring will be necessary in the relationship between further and higher education and confusion about the distinction between foundation degrees and higher national diplomas (HNDs) will need to be overcome. Finally, it was pointed out that students themselves appear to want traditional style degrees but government funding is for foundation degrees.

Further reading: Tim Connell's paper on foundation degrees in our Good Practice Guide.

The three-year degree

John Russell (University of Bradford)

John Russell focused his presentation on current pressures facing the year abroad, which are threatening to undermine four-year language degrees in some instances.

The option of a three-year language degree seems increasingly to be preferred by students and their parents. This clearly poses a problem for the future of the year abroad. Difficulties also arise from the fact that the benefits to students of spending a year abroad have always been obvious but not necessarily overtly expressed.

John presented a SWOT analysis of the year abroad as follows:


  • Excellent track record
  • Relatively low maintenance
  • Popular with students after the event


  • Accreditation
  • Assessment
  • Articulation with the rest of the course
  • Some students just cannot go


  • Bologna Process (the suggested three-year undergraduate followed by two-year postgraduate route will require UK students to have completed a year abroad if they wish to proceed to an M.A within one year)
  • Globalisation – experience of a year abroad will become an increasingly frequent employment requirement


  • Top-up fees
  • Language degree programmes could potentially be fitted into three years
  • Widening Participation

The speaker concluded by emphasising that the status quo is not an option and that language degrees cannot stand still.

Response and discussion

(Led by David Nott, Lancaster University)

The following points were raised in relation to the day’s presentations:

  • Schools need more support from higher education institutions. Liaison between the two sectors must be further developed.
  • The difficulty for higher education of establishing a dialogue with employers needs to be resolved.

Finally, it was suggested that future Subject Centre events could be organised to discuss the three-year degree, work-based learning and work experience, modern apprenticeships, employability and improving the relationship between higher education and modern foreign language departments in schools.