Researching 'Languages Work': Why don't teenagers pick languages?

Author: Teresa Tinsley


With the removal of languages from the compulsory curriculum for 14-16 year olds, the post 16 decline in language learning is starting to affect numbers taking GCSE as well. Public debate centres on the importance of pupil choice, and the alleged unpopularity of the subject among teenagers. The 'Languages Work' project has produced materials designed to improve careers guidance in languages, and so increase take up. This paper outlines findings from our development work which sheds light on teenagers' attitudes towards languages and how to address their misconceptions.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Aims of the 'Languages Work' project

The 'Languages Work' project is funded by the Department for Education and Skills and seeks to raise awareness of the true value of languages in the workplace and beyond. This is in the context of the National Languages Strategy, which has as one of its objectives 'to increase the numbers of people studying languages in further and higher education, and in work-based training.'

'Languages Work' centres on careers guidance for languages and its purpose is to provide intermediaries such as careers advisers and language teachers with the tools they need to provide high quality information and guidance about the usefulness of languages in working life. In doing so, it seeks to fulfil an identified need: according to a survey carried out as part of the project in Autumn 2003, nearly 90% of careers advisers thought the existing information was inadequate. Many existing materials stress specialist language occupations (interpreting, translating and teaching), and reinforce the misconception that these are the only jobs available for people with languages. In fact, employers seek people with language competence in combination with a wide range of other specialist skills: accountancy, marketing, business studies and computing, for example.

As the project has been in development, its importance has been underlined by surveys which show the increasing tendency of schools to make languages an optional subject in the Key Stage 4 curriculum. Many schools have been taken aback at the extent to which their pupils have chosen to drop out of languages,

The materials therefore target pupils at key transition points: Year 9, when GCSE choices are being made, and Year 11 when decisions about post 16 study are taken.

The first year of the project, which started in May 2003, was devoted to a review of existing materials, a survey of careers advisers, and research and development to help make sure that the materials address the real concerns and misconceptions of their likely users. We worked with a communications agency, Brighten the Corners, and consulted a wide range of stakeholders about the messages and angles they thought were likely to be most effective. We also held sessions with teenagers themselves in Sheffield and Birmingham.

2. Teenagers' attitudes to languages

The results of this work highlight teenagers' ignorance of the role of languages in work context: many students believe that languages are only useful if you were going to travel or work abroad, or if you want to become an interpreter or translator. Very few had considered the possibility that any career direction can usefully be complemented with a language, broadening horizons and opening up new opportunities.

Those students who have not had opportunities in their life to travel abroad and to come into contact with other languages in a range of situations tend to be the least motivated to study them. One student, rather pathetically, stated 'By the time I can travel abroad I'll be able to pay a translator, because I'll be rich!'. In contrast, a group of 14 year olds from more privileged backgrounds who had chosen to continue with a language said 'We have been to foreign countries so we have a good idea of what we might do there.' These answers underline the need for high quality careers guidance to counteract the social exclusion inherent in the concept of a 'free' choice.

Students who are poorly motivated to study languages often show a lack of aspiration, and a poor self-image of themselves as language learners: 'I'm really dumb and couldn't learn a language if my life depended on it' said one girl. We believe that those who advise students on option choices should not be accepting these sorts of judgements as valid and allowing the very students who have most to gain from seeing themselves in a more positive light to give up on languages.

Equally evident is the young people's ignorance of the role of English and multilingual society. When a group of Sheffield teenagers was asked what percentage of the world's population they thought speak English as a mother tongue, their estimations were wildly inaccurate some saying that as many as 80% or 90% of the world spoke English. These same students also vastly underestimated the number of languages spoken in their city, guessing 5 or at best 20 languages when in fact over 60 are spoken. Although we have not researched parental attitudes, we believe that teenagers are not alone in these misconceptions and that there is a need for awareness-raising in the home too. The 'Languages Work' materials include a questionnaire designed to be completed with parents or carers at home.

We also asked students what they enjoyed most about their language lessons. The message that came through was that the wider experiential aspects of learning a language are more popular than motivations narrowly connected to the conduct of the lesson. Top of the list was 'learning about the culture and the country', closely followed by 'sampling foreign foods'. Students also liked 'interacting with people differently'. Answers relating more to the teaching actually came lower down the list.

3. Lessons learned about promoting take-up

From the feedback we received from these teenagers, and from wider group of teachers, advisers and careers guidance services consulted, we identified the following principles which informed the development of the project:

1. Developing an understanding of the place of languages in working life and in multilingual society generally is not simply information to be transmitted, but part of learning itself. Therefore the materials that we have developed include activities and lesson suggestions for use in the classroom.

2. To be effective, the messages need to address individual motivations beyond the instrumental. In other words, the focus goes beyond simply what jobs are available with languages and stresses the wider benefits of language learning: for travel, enjoyment, cultural and social reasons as well as for employment.

3. It is extremely important not to leave the job of convincing teenagers to study languages to the languages teachers themselves. Messages are likely to be much more effective if given by non-languages staff such as careers teachers, form tutors, citizenship teachers or those responsible for Personal and Social Education. We will be targeting these groups in our publicity.

4. Teenagers have to be able to interact directly with some of the materials: not all need to be mediated by teachers. The website, and some of the printed materials have been designed with this in mind.

5. Finally, we learned that the messages themselves had to go back to basics and address first level misconceptions about languages. The three key messages of the 'Languages Work' project are therefore:

  • Not everyone speaks English
  • You don't have to be fluent for languages to be useful
  • Languages improve the quality of your life.

These are backed up with case studies of people using languages in their work from sectors as diverse as Engineering, Central Government, the Voluntary Sector, Finance and Media, as well as the specialist language professions. They include people from a range of ethnic backgrounds using less widely taught and community languages as well as French, German and Spanish.

The materials, which include a CD-ROM with clips from previously filmed material promoting languages, an Activity Folder for schools, a published Handbook on Languages and Careers, and promotional material including posters and postcards will be promoted heavily during Autumn 2004 and Spring 2005. It is hoped that schools will find them useful and effective. Our continuing priority will be to monitor their success in encouraging greater take up of language courses.


CILT, the National Centre for Languages (2003), Language Trends 2003 (

Department for Education and Skills (2002) Languages for all: languages for life. A Strategy for England, London: HMSO

Morris, I, (2004) Evaluation of Language Learning Study, Sheffield: Regional Language Network Yorkshire and the Humber

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