Speaking an international language is crucial to understanding another culture and for long-term growth and prosperity (British Academy et al., 2020). So, no matter how many people around the world speak English, we still need to go to the effort of mastering other languages ourselves in the UK. The British Council’s Language Trends England and Language Trends Wales research is well-known and much cited. The first Language Trends Northern Ireland report was published in 2019 and the intention is for a biennial survey to ascertain the impact of policy decisions on language learning. This blog post focuses on the Language Trends Northern Ireland 2021 survey, of which I was pleased to be author. The questionnaire was sent to all primary and post-primary schools in Northern Ireland. More than 15 per cent of primary schools, 57 per cent of post-primaries and more than 1,500 year 9 pupils in 38 schools responded. Like other parts of the UK, language learning in schools in Northern Ireland has declined annually since 2004.
What are the key findings from the 2021 Language Trends Northern Ireland research?
The non-statutory position of languages at primary level in Northern Ireland means that just 15 per cent of responding primary schools taught a language in the 2020/21 school year when Covid-19 disrupted learning across the curriculum. The fact languages are not part of the primary curriculum in Northern Ireland, unlike other parts of the UK, means that they are not seen as important as other subjects. The research also shows that year 9 pupils (age 12–13) enjoy language lessons, but just 44 per cent want to continue with a language to GCSE. Ninety-two per cent of pupils cannot see the relevance of languages for their future career.
‘Ninety-two per cent of pupils cannot see the relevance of languages for their future career.’
There is great inequity across post-primary schools in relation to time spent on language learning at key stage 3. Pupils in most selective (grammar) schools spend two to three hours per week on average in instructed language classes, whereas pupils in almost all non-selective schools spend less than two hours per week on language learning. At key transition points in a young person’s schooling, the door to language learning can be closed – four non-selective schools report having no pupils learning languages for GCSE and the report shows A-level provision has precariously low numbers in most schools, similar to the findings of Henderson & Carruthers (2021).
Most language learning in Northern Ireland continues to decline: How do we improve uptake?
There is no single answer. There is a need for radical reform of our key stage 3 Curriculum for Modern Languages and GCSE specifications to allow teachers time to focus on second language education theories which work for their pupils, to teach topics which motivate learners and to assess learners in an appealing way. ‘Languages’ in the broadest sense ought to feature on programme for government and to have properly funded provision at primary level. Graham et al. (2017) present evidence to suggest that pupils need language teaching for a minimum of one hour per week and to be taught by a teacher with sufficient expertise.
What are the biggest barriers to language teaching in Northern Ireland and how do we overcome them?
The nature and content of external exams is the main barrier in both the 2019 and 2021 reports, closely followed by the way external exams are marked and graded. There is a very strong basket of evidence in Language Trends Northern Ireland 2021 that a review of modern languages at key stage 3, GCSE and A-level needs to take place. Pedagogical emphasis in the languages classroom needs to focus on second language education theories which work for young people’s progress – generic curriculum skills are no substitute for language-specific skills.
The good news
This research shows that there is excellent practice in language learning going on in schools and classrooms; many teachers are constantly reviewing pedagogy, there is a genuine commitment to developing the international dimension in most schools, and most primary school principals are enthusiastic about making space for languages. Teachers have the will; government holds the keys to lead the way.
The next Language Trends Northern Ireland iteration is due to get under way in spring 2023.
British Academy, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Association of School College Leaders, the British Council, & Universities UK. (2020). Towards a national languages strategy: Education and skills. https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/publications/towards-national-languages-strategy-education-and-skills/
Graham, S., Courtney, L., Marinis, T., & Tonkyn, A. (2017). Early language learning: The impact of teaching and teacher factors. Language Learning, 67(4), 922–958. https://doi.org/10.1111/lang.12251
Henderson, L. & Carruthers, J. (2021) Socio-economic factors, school type and the uptake of languages: Northern Ireland in the wider UK context. The Language Learning Journal, 50(6), 712–731. https://doi.org/10.1080/09571736.2021.1888151