How Socioeconomics Affect Language Learning

Poorer children are missing out on the chance to study languages. Credit Shutterstock.

By Suzanne Graham

The British have a reputation (rightly or wrongly) for struggling to learn foreign languages. A recent survey showed, for example, that 62% of the population can’t speak any other language apart from English.

Part of the issue is that language learning in schools faces huge challenges. GCSE uptake remains stuck at around 50% and the number of students taking an A-level in a language has declined by about a third since 1996. And the latest Language Trends Survey, which looks at uptake of language learning in England, makes for worrying reading.

Headlines have focused on the north-south divide in the number of learners taking a languages GCSE – with the north generally having lower levels of uptake than the south of the country. But a closer look suggests the situation is more complex – with the problem going well beyond GCSE numbers.

For a start, the survey by the British Council shows there are big differences in the level of access learners have to languages at all stages of education. This can be seen in the fact that primary schools with a higher percentage of learners eligible for free school meals are more likely to allocate less time to language teaching – in many cases under 30 minutes a week. And we know from research we conducted at the University of Reading, the amount of time spent teaching languages at primary level influences learners’ progress when they get to secondary school.

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