What is happening to languages at A Level?

14 Aug 2014

Today’s A level figures show that entries for modern language subjects dropped by 3%. But entries for all subjects were down by 2% so JCQ, who published the results, was in some ways justified in describing the situation as ‘stable’. But a look at entry figures over the last 5 years shows that the figures are far from stable – in fact they have declined by about 10%.


These figures include entries for all modern languages, including Welsh, Irish, and languages such as Polish, Russian and Chinese which have grown considerably over the past few years, so to understand what is going on we need to look at the picture for individual languages.


Here we see that French and German have been suffering from declining numbers and that between 2013 and 2014, French suffered a further 7% drop. This comes on top of a 10% drop the previous year. German, after some heavy falls did not suffer further this year, but only Spanish and the other languages as a group can be said to be ‘stable’.

So what is happening with those ‘Other languages?

Although Chinese dropped this year, it has grown by around a third in five years. But these figures are anomalous: there are more entries for Chinese A level than for GCSE and they are thought to be boosted by Chinese nationals from abroad undertaking sixth form studies in UK independent schools. Other languages which have seen big rises like Polish and Russian, no doubt reflect patterns of recent immigration into Britain. Probably the rises in Portuguese and Modern Greek, following on from the Eurozone financial crisis, are also down to recent immigration, whereas the languages of more established immigrant groups such as Urdu, Gujarati and Bengali, show a downward trend.

  2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Chinese 2,372 3,237 3,425 3,326 3,113
Italian 877 895 871 816 814
Welsh 866 917 859 752 692
Russian 816 871 1,008 1,079 1,147
Urdu 651 739 650 566 460
Polish 618 844 923 900 963
Arabic 544 561 604 643 645
Irish 352 328 304 310 313
Turkish 340 366 355 419 466
Portuguese 281 340 312 360 370
Japanese 233 265 280 261 260
Dutch 185 178 140 127 149
Panjabi 159 196 184 189 167
Persian 156 182 154 164 190
Modern Greek 116 113 111 122 150
Bengali 64 83 54 56 42
Modern Hebrew 38 50 46 46 52
Gujarati 25 33 19 13 19

Prof Mike Kelly, Southampton University, commented: “The decline in Modern Languages at A level has continued again this year, with further reductions, particularly in French, which has traditionally been the most popular language. This is likely to put further pressure on language departments in universities. However, there is now a small but welcome  increase in the number of students taking a language at AS level. There is growing interest in less commonly taught languages such as Polish and Russian, which partly reflects the influence of recent immigrant groups. The sustained interest in traditional languages, especially Spanish, at AS level may mean that the tide is beginning to turn.”

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