‘The story of the decline of modern languages in UK universities is as familiar as the fact that Madame Marsaud was always dans la cuisine in the textbooks: the numbers taking modern foreign language degree courses fell 16% between 2007-08 and 2013-14.
The numbers stabilised last year, yet a new blow seems to land weekly: this month, the OCR exam board announced it is to discontinue GCSEs and A-levels in French, German and Spanish. The latest annual Language Trends report, meanwhile, found schools are not preparing for more GCSE or A-level language entries despite the new Ebacc – intended to see 90% of pupils take a suite of five core GCSEs including a language by 2020.
With school languages deep in the doldrums, and new initiatives, including primary school language study, yet to feed through, what can universities do to keep departments viable and the subjects alive? If students with language skills are no longer there, where can teaching the subject even begin?
One answer, it appears, is at the beginning. Though it’s difficult to detect in admissions statistics, university language courses are changing, with more opportunities for students to study a language from scratch. Ab initio courses, as they are termed, once the preserve of Russian, Chinese and Arabic, are now being extended to include more familiar languages: Spanish, sometimes French and especially German. In some universities, such courses are long established, but others are making new forays: Oxford offered beginners’ German for the first time this year (available in joint honours to students with an A-level in another language); King’s College London, went further and this year offered German from scratch with a range of subjects. Manchester has introduced French from scratch – plus the chance to add a language as a minor degree subject.’ - Guardian