Evolution of a national strategy for foreign language learning

Author: Jenny Willis


This paper discusses the potential advantage that bilinguals have over monolinguals and the attitudes of the English towards foreign language learning. It summarises the findings of the Nuffield Enquiry and the Government's response, and suggests that attitudes need to change along with a political commitment to promote plurilingualism.

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Table of contents


This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


Foreign language learning in England is dead; long live foreign language learning! Such was the contradictory message conveyed in February 2002 by the Green Paper 14-19: extending opportunities, raising standards (DfES 2002). After four short years, when the Nuffield Inquiry and its immediate aftermath appeared to have secured the identity languages had long sought (Hawkins 1987), the bubble of euphoria had burst.

In an amazing feat of léger de main, the Green Paper could declare that 'unless our children learn languages earlier we will fail them' (DfES 0186/2002: 1), whilst simultaneously downgrading their status to that of mere 'statutory entitlement' (writer's emphasis) in Key Stage 4. Foreign languages would miraculously move from being a compulsory element of the secondary curriculum, to a 'desirable' subject in the primary sector and a requirement only in Key Stage 3.

Why, though, would the nation's children be failed if they were not taught foreign languages? What value did languages represent? Without addressing these questions directly, the Green Paper simply reiterated the usual panoply of imprecise reasons for learning languages, without probing their complexity. Hence it talked nebulously of 'the contribution of languages ... to the cultural and linguistic richness of our society, to personal fulfilment, commercial success, international trade and mutual understanding,' (DfES 0186/2002:1) focusing on patent functional value whilst having little conception of how to achieve these aims ('we would also welcome comments on how language teaching can be organised...'[DfES 0186/2002: 6].

This paper will argue that the latest government pronouncements are typical of a history of incremental planning in regard to foreign language learning (FLL) in England (1). It will propose that this is not due solely to the multiplicity of functions the subject has been expected to fulfil, but that it is, rather, reflective of England's elitist values, though these may not necessarily have been consciously articulated, following a process which has led to self-exclusion (Bourdieu and Passeron 1990). It will be suggested that successive governments have been able to conceal their ideological assumptions behind the more obvious functional reasons for learning foreign languages, and that this has been facilitated by the rise of the country's mother tongue to the position of international lingua franca. Consequently, restricted access to FLL has covertly supported social stratification, without exciting popular outrage, the average Englishman (2) perceiving no pressing need to learn foreign languages in an increasingly anglophone world.

Paradoxically, the thrust for national competence in foreign languages comes now not from the public, but from politicians, who have recognised the functional and symbolic importance of plurilingualism (3) if England is to participate actively in the European Community. This does not imply total fluency in other languages but recognises

Partial competence - both in the level achieved in each of the competencies and in the types of competencies involved. The partial character of plurilingual competence is thus to be understood in a qualitative and quantitative fashion. (European Language Council 2001: 6)

Section 2 will expand the notion of functional and ideological value, and will introduce a model for conceptualising the change required if England is to move from its current monolingual state to one of plurilingualism. The discussion will be located within the context of globalised English usage. Some statistical evidence will set the background to the Nuffield Languages Inquiry (1998-2000), whose brief, findings and recommendations will then be examined. It will be suggested that precursors to these recommendations already existed amongst recent central initiatives, but that these were uncoordinated and sometimes contradictory. The government's formal response to Nuffield and subsequent action will bring the reader up to the present day. Continuing ambivalence towards the notion of plurilingualism will be found, leading the writer to conclude that FLL policy remains uncommitted and that both structural systems and acceptance of individual responsibility will be required to bring about change in the nation's FLL habits.

The functional and symbolic value of FLL

Contemporary aims for FLL

Section 1 has referred to the multiplicity of functions attributed to FLL: what, then, are these? Readers will have experienced, whether as learners or as teachers, the incessant bombardment of new initiatives that have succeeded the Great Debate (Cox & Dyson 1969a and 1969b). Comprehensivisation (DES 10/65 and 10/66) and raising of the school leaving age (1973) together brought new pedagogical challenges. Political concern focused on standards, accountability and vocationalism (Ball 1994). Complementing the Education Reform Act (1988), Curriculum Matters 8, Modern Foreign Languages to 16 (DES1987) gave five reasons for learning a foreign language: it

  • allows pupils to explore life style and culture of another land through its language;
  • introduces learners to language awareness;
  • promotes social interaction in and beyond the classroom;
  • develops individual skills e.g. memory;
  • provides skills for adult life e.g. for work or travel.

In other words, languages had a functional role, essentially for the individual's personal enrichment. By 1999, the DfEE had refined these and brought in two new notions: lifelong learning and citizenship:

Through the study of a foreign language, pupils understand and appreciate different countries, cultures people and communities - and as they do so, begin to think of themselves as citizens of the world as well as of the UK. Pupils also learn about the basic structures of language. Their listening, reading and memory skills improve, and their speaking and writing become more accurate ... (they) lay the foundations for future study of other languages. (DfEE 1999)

These aims may be compared with those of Higher Education (Dearing, 1997 para. 23), to:

  • contribute effectively to society and achieve personal fulfilment;
  • increase knowledge and understanding for their own sake and to foster their application to the benefit of the economy and society;
  • serve the needs of an adaptable, sustainable, knowledge-based economy at local, regional and national levels;
  • play a major role in shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society

The emphasis remained functional, but it had moved to collective rather than individual needs. What is less obvious is the symbolic role of language, merely hinted at in the final bullet point. The writer argues that this has been obfuscated in order to support England's social hierarchies and that a tension exists between internal and external symbolic needs. Some explanation is called for.

Language and identity

At the symbolic level, language contributes to a sense of communal and individual identity (Bourdieu & Passeron 1990). It is implicitly inward-looking, providing the means for internal communication within the community, and setting speakers apart from non-speakers. It is thus a symbolic representation of the community's identity, carrying 'cultural clout' (Edwards, 1995: 40) for those who speak it as well as being a practical tool for communication.

The ability to speak the language of another community provides an instrument which allows access to their culture; conversely, if other communities can speak your language, they have a powerful tool for accessing your community. Language therefore has both an inward- and an outward-looking functional value, and a symbolic value associated with identity.

The potential for communication outside the community will have positive and negative elements. Notwithstanding the practical, functional, value of speaking another language, and the political and economic need to communicate with other nations, access to knowledge of another language is potentially socially divisive in that it gives access to another culture, from which 'subversive' ideas may be borrowed (Warschauer, Said and Zohry 2002). Here, external functional need is in conflict with internal ideological need. On the one hand, it gives those who speak the foreign language power to communicate beyond their own community and to initiate that communication, when the other community remains monolingual. In terms of external relations, then, plurilingualism is a potential source of power. On the other hand, though, being able to communicate with the outside community both invades one symbol of its social identity (a source of power in relation to that community) and potentially exposes the plurilingual speaker to cultural influences which may undermine his own community's identity (a threat to the power of his own community).

The dilemma, then, is that any language has these dual functional and symbolic values, which may become problematic once plurilingualism allows penetration of either one's own or another's community. On these grounds alone, it might be felt politically desirable to restrict access to foreign language learning to a minority of 'select' individuals who are not likely to threaten national unity (Lawton 1992). This creates a camouflage for those with a more personal motivation for restricting access to FLL. The writer has argued elsewhere (Willis 2002) that the history of FLL in England provides evidence of political manipulation aimed at sustaining social hierarchies.

The principle the writer proposes is that if bi-/plurilingualism is, whether for internal or external reasons, politically restricted, the minority possessed of second language skills acquires a potential advantage over the majority of his monolingual community. This is because the bilingual group has the power to communicate both internally and externally, and the monolingual majority can communicate only internally. Figure 1 illustrates such a situation, at the stage where the bilinguals are a minority group and it is through them that any proactive communication with the outside world occurs. The direction of communication possible is indicated by the arrows.

Figure 1 The communication effects of mono-, bi- and plurilingualism

Figure 1 The communication effects of mono-, bi- and plurilingualism

The globalisation of English

Monolingualism has, over time, become the norm for England, but as a symbol of a mighty nation, the English language held status abroad (Graddol 2001). It brought the same promise of privilege which bilingual speakers in England had enjoyed, both within their own society and as communicators between societies. This was not the result of any intrinsic linguistic advantage but was, rather, a reflection of the political strength of its native speakers: 'English is the password language of an international elite, far larger in scale than French or Latin ever was. This is the result of history, of empire building, and the power of the United States' (Buruma 2001). As the linguistic gatekeepers between a more powerful nation and their own, speakers of English assumed real and symbolic power, 'symbolic domination' (Bourdieu 1992:50).

So, as a consequence of England's erstwhile political power, English acquired an international, practical, value for other nations. This has had both functional and ideological implications for England, affecting its citizens' need and willingness to learn other languages. While non-English speaking nations have embraced a bi-/plurilingual model, looking outward to functional need in order to communicate with other peoples, England has remained essentially monolingual. At the functional level, there has been little apparent practical need to learn foreign languages so long as other nations have been willing to learn English. Symbolically, the country has been able to maintain one element of its identity, its language, and to adhere to the inward-looking model. The writer suggests that this has been politically convenient to those who sought to control access to FLL for reasons of social stratification, but that it is misguided in the present-day context of globalised English.

English attitudes to foreign language learning

For these complex reasons, monolingualism has prevailed in England, despite a National Curriculum which included FLL as a requirement in Key Stages 3 and 4 (ERA 1988): Figure 2 shows that 21% of Year 11 pupils were not entered for a GCSE examination in languages in the year 2000. Even when allowance is made for alternative examinations, this figure is disappointingly low. It is also apparent from Figure 2 that the traditional range of languages still predominates and that gender differences in performance remain.

Figure 2 GCSE entries as % of 15 year olds 2000 (Source: DfEE National Statistics, First Release)

Figure 2 GCSE entries as % of 15 year olds 2000 (Source: DfEE National Statistics, First Release)

Figure 3 (Source: Robey 2001)

Figure 3 (Source: Robey 2001)

When the longitudinal picture for the same languages is examined at undergraduate level, a serious decline can be traced in each, with the sole exception of Spanish, whose popularity has risen, perhaps because of its obvious functional value as Spanish-speaking resorts offer prime holiday destinations. Figure 3 illustrates the fall in undergraduate applications for the five most commonly learnt languages against the base line of 1994, over the remainder of that decade.

The Nuffield Languages Inquiry 1998-2000

The Inquiry's brief

In light of the parlous state of FLL in England, the independent Nuffield Languages Inquiry was launched in 1998, tasked with establishing:

  • What capability in languages will this country need in the next twenty years if it is to fulfil its economic, strategic, social and cultural responsibilities and aims, and the aspirations of its citizens?
  • To what extent do present policies and arrangements meet these needs?
  • What strategic planning and initiatives will be required in the light of the present position? (Nuffield 2000: 10)

Findings and Recommendations

The Inquiry concluded (Nuffield 2000: 6-7) that:

  • English is not enough.
  • People are looking for leadership to improve the nation's capability in languages.
  • Young people from the UK are at a growing disadvantage in the recruitment market.
  • The UK needs competence in many languages - not just French - but the education system is not geared to achieve this.
  • The government has no coherent approach to languages.
  • In spite of parental demand, there is still no UK-wide agenda for children to start languages early.
  • Secondary school pupils lack motivation or direction.
  • Nine out of ten children stop learning languages at 16.
  • University language departments are closing, leaving the sector in deep crisis.
  • Adults are keen to learn languages but are badly served by an impoverished system.
  • The UK desperately needs more language teachers.

It went on to make 12 recommendations, viz.

1 Designate languages as a key skill
Languages by virtue of their direct contribution to economic competitiveness, intercultural tolerance and social cohesion, should have the status of a key skill alongside literacy, numeracy and ICT.

2 Drive forward a national strategy
The government should establish a national strategy for developing capability in languages in the UK and a system capable of supporting such a strategy.

3 Appoint a languages supremo
The task would be to work at the highest level with government departments, national agencies, employers and the general public to ensure successful implementation of the national strategy for languages. To be effective, the supremo should be attached to the Cabinet Office and have direct access to the Prime Minister.

4 Raise the profile of languages
The government should arrange for a sustained campaign to promote positive attitudes towards languages, raise awareness of their potential and foster a culture where using more than one language us seen as an attainable goal for the majority in the UK.

5 Give young children a flying start
The government should declare a firm commitment to early language learning for all children and invest in the long-term policies necessary for pupils to learn a new language from age 7. To spearhead this commitment, it should fund international primary schools and introduce language awareness into the National Literacy Strategy.

6 Improve arrangements in secondary schools
Language learning in the secondary school sector should be uprated to provide a wider range of languages, a more flexible menu to cater better for different needs, abilities and interests and more use of information Internet. All pupils should leave secondary education equipped with foundation language skills and the skills for further learning in later life.

7 Make languages a specified component of the 16-19 curriculum
A language should be a requirement for university entry and for designated vocational qualifications. For the majority in the 16-19 age group who do not wish to specialise in languages, there should be a range of alternative courses to extend existing language skills or acquire new languages. There is scope to incorporate these in the Key Skills initiative.

8 Reform the organisation and funding of languages in higher education
A national agenda for languages in higher education should be agreed as a matter of urgency to ensure a sufficient supply of language specialists nationally and the entitlement of all students to learn a language as part of their degree course. Development should be a planned and managed process with full regard to national language needs.

9 Develop the huge potential of language learning in adult life
The government should take strategic responsibility for lifelong language learning in order to ensure the investment, collaboration and consultation needed to respond to the demand and drive up standards.

10 Break out of the vicious circle of inadequate teacher supply
The minister responsible for the recruitment of teachers should implement a series of radical short-term measures to attract more language teachers alongside the long-term solution of making post-16 language study a requirement for entry to higher education and therefore to initial teacher training.

11 Establish a national standards framework for describing and accrediting language competence
The framework should embrace the Council of Europe Framework and existing UK qualifications, both in education and the world of employment. It should be clear, transparent and couched in terms which are intelligible to non-specialist users.

12 Co-ordinate initiatives linking Internet and languages
The national strategy for languages should support and co-ordinate existing pioneering initiatives in ICT and ensure that the great potential of new technologies is fully exploited in language teaching and learning.
(Nuffield 2000: 8-9)

Many of these recommendations will sound familiar and have, indeed, featured in various central initiatives introduced since the ERA (1988). Table 1 traces possible precursors to each of the proposals, as well as to the current drive for skills (functional needs) and citizenship (functional and symbolic needs), through six recent innovations. Clearly, others could be added, but these will serve as a model for further development.

According to this analysis, only two of the Nuffield concerns were not currently under way: central leadership for FLL and the 16-19 sector. The latter was, in fact, on stream. So does this mean that the government already endorsed the Nuffield proposals? When the detail of the six innovations is examined inconsistencies become apparent. Table 1 illustrates this by using shading to differentiate between positive and negative action, the lighter grey indicating action that results in downgrading of languages.

The two sources of this downgrading have appeared through revisions to the National Curriculum, starting from 1996. These relate to the curriculum of Key Stage 4 and its subsequent form of assessment, foreshadowing the Green Paper (2002), and are patently contradictory to any claim for plurilingualism that would follow through to the work place.

Table 1 - A National Strategey for Language Learning

Download Table 1 (rich text format 548Kb)

The Government's Response

What was the government's formal response to Nuffield? This came from the DfEE (2001, para. 4), though the Secretary of State pointed out that the Inquiry's recommendations went beyond education and training. He was somewhat defensive in listing action already aimed at addressing the twelve key issues the Report had identified. He subsumed this under six headings:

  • curriculum and qualifications;
  • supporting materials for teachers;
  • the teaching capacity for Modern Foreign Languages (MFLs);
  • incentives for trainee teachers;
  • business and adult education links;
  • work with European and other international partners.

Table 2 summarises the specific activities he cited, once again using lighter shading to point up areas of weaker support for FLL.

It is immediately apparent that there is one recommendation to which the government did not respond positively: the naming of MFLs as a key skill. Although its response left this question open, no action was promised. Action in regard to recommendations 3, 9 and 11 was posited for the future, but often relied on bodies other than the DfEE, the Department patently distancing itself from responsibility and calling upon industry or other partners to resource and manage FLL.

Table 2 The Government's response to the Nuffield Recommendations
Key Skill
National strategy
Langs supremo
Raise status
Early learning
Sec. curr'um
16-19 curr'um
HE curr'um &
Lifelong learning
Teacher supply
National standards
Priority given to existing skills agenda Responsibility of Lang. Colleges and other Departs. of State Locally through RDAs; role of business not education EYL
and CILT
Early learning pilot and QCA investigation NC revisions
Specialist schools
Teaching Training 2002/3
Curr'um 2000, AS levels Links with business; HEFCE funding collaborative projects 1997-2000 Partnerships:
Golden hellos, grants, overseas recruits Support of Council of Europe NGfL; ICT in each KS; Japanese resources and links; European Schools Network

Action since the government's formal response to the Nuffield Languages Inquiry

In responding to the government's response, the Nuffield team (Nuffield 2002) expressed four areas of particular disappointment: the DfEE

  • failed to appreciate that this was not simply an issue for the school curriculum;
  • did not give sufficient attention to higher education and lifelong learning;
  • had unrealistic expectations of the Language Colleges;
  • Curriculum 2000 would not, alone, resolve the take-up rate for languages.

It is presently too early to judge the long-term impact of Nuffield, but some of the government's actions since the final report was published will illustrate the direction in which FLL appears to be going. Table 3 traces just a sample of the initiatives affecting FLL, and brings the reader up to the time of the Green Paper (2002). Whilst the action thitherto appears positive, the proposals of the Green Paper are clearly contradictory and ambivalent towards FLL.

As before, contrasting shading is used to highlight the difference between action supportive and that which is detrimental to the status of languages.

The consistent message has been that FLL has both a practical value for industry and a combined practical and symbolic role to play in integrating the UK in the European Community. These are all outward looking reasons for FLL becoming a normal expectation for its citizens, and make no reference to the internally symbolic nature of language. Why should this be?

Table 3 Some central initiatives relating to FLL post-Nuffield

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A plurilingual model for England

Over recent decades, governments have become increasingly aware of the economic disadvantages monolingualism brings to the country (Hagen 1998), and the financial loss suffered by industry (Connell 2002). This is not only a question of functional incompetence: symbolically, the ability and willingness to speak the language of others alters perceptions and relationships. There is now a similarly dual recognition of the functional and political value of FLL in the context of Europe. For the Council of Europe overtly seeks to produce a community where everyone would 'be able to acquire and keep up their ability to communicate in at least two Community languages in addition to their mother tongue' (European Commission, Brussels 1995). If England is to participate actively within that community, it must move towards the situation where plurilingualism is the norm, and monolingualism the exception. Figure 4 illustrates this, the converse to the state represented in Figure 1.

Figure 4 From monolingual to bi/plurilingual norm

Figure 4 From monolingual to bi/plurilingual norm

The writer suggests that government ambivalence stems from the internal implications of adapting to this plurilingual model: it would remove one of the traditional means of retaining social hierarchies. For, by opening access to FLL to all, the subject would no longer hold the cachet of exclusivity, and everyone would potentially have access to any form of employment involving language skills. Implicitly, social relationships would be altered. For those who seek to integrate the country as an active member of Europe, a tension arises between these symbolic internal considerations and the functional and symbolic value of having a plurilingual people.

But, assuming political commitment to the ideal, how feasible is it? After centuries of being conditioned to see FLL as unnecessary, and in the context of global use of English, can the nation be persuaded of the need to learn other languages? This is perhaps the greatest obstacle to bringing about change in the nation's language habits. It requires an attitudinal change, acceptance of the value of languages and, the writer suggests, perception of the individual's responsibility towards both himself and the community. It demands that possession of linguistic skills become as normal as literacy and numeracy, as the ability to operate a PC or to drive a car.

A combined effort will be necessary if this state is ever to be achieved: structural arrangements will be required to provide the educational system within which FLLs are an integral part of the core curriculum; individuals will need to understand not just the functional but also the symbolic importance of their becoming plurilingual. Ultimately, this is a political issue, and, until opponents of FLL see evidence of the practical benefits of plurilingualism and of the international disadvantages resulting from monolingualism, progress will be slow. It is for the government to take the lead. Without a political commitment to the ideal of plurilingualism, irrespective of the symbolic risks this entails for internal traditions, the nation's subliminal message to the world will ultimately incur greater economic and political damage to its place on the international stage.

'Languages must become everyone's responsibility.' (European Language Council 2001: 3)


1. For accuracy, the article refers solely to policy in England, recognising that both linguistic and legislative differences are to be found in other parts of the United Kingdom.

2. The masculine noun and pronoun are used in the interests of stylistic simplicity

3. Whilst it is fully recognised that England is a multicultural country and many of its citizens are bilingual in e.g. Hindi and English, the research focuses on the indigenous population of England. This is not to decry the importance of its more recent communities, but both the researcher's personal experience within inner London, and evidence formally available suggest that the nation is far from valuing the linguistic richness of these groups ('the multilingual talents of UK citizens are under-recognised, under-used and all too often viewed with suspicion' [Nuffield 2000]).

The writer adopts the definition of the terms bi- and pluri-lingual proposed by Jones, S in the Consultative Report of the Nuffield Language Inquiry, 1998
'.. there is no 'perfectly bilingual' condition to be aimed for, or an ideal balance between ability in native and other languages, but (...) a competence that is individual, evolving, heterogeneous and out of balance. A learner could therefore show a range of partial competences in a number of languages, without mastery of any.'