What are the Current and Future Challenges for MFL?

To cite this article: Sturt-Schmidt, James (2020). What are the Current and Future Challenges for MFL?, The Millennial [Online], Available at: (this page URL).

The last decade has undoubtedly seen a greater, renewed importance given to language learning from ‘the top’, with the British Academy’s (2019) statement that monolingualism is “the illiteracy of the 21st Century” (Roberts et al, cited in The British Academy, 2019: 3) and the government’s inclusion of foreign languages as a requirement to pass the English Baccalaureate (EBacc). However, despite such advancements, numbers are still lower than they were before languages were removed as a compulsory subject at GCSE (Dobson, 2018), suggesting the opinions of MFL held ‘at the top’ are not so widely shared amongst children and their parents. Indeed, recent research into the current situation of MFL in England (Tinsley & Doležal, 2018; Tinsley, 2019) shows there is a great deal to be done to improve the status of languages and their take-up beyond Key Stage 3. In the last few years, several notable developments have occurred that have had, and will continue to have, an enduring effect on MFL teaching in the UK. This article therefore aims to review some of the challenges that these developments pose for schools and teachers of languages moving forward.

New examinations

One of the many challenges faced by potential learners of foreign languages, and subsequently their teachers, are the new GCSE examinations for languages. Launched in 2018, the new examinations have been criticised as “not fit for purpose” by the Future Generations Commissioner (BBC, 2019b). In a letter to the Guardian newspaper, 152 academics from 36 universities claimed the new exams were graded too severely and that they placed “disproportionate” stress on pupils (Bawden, 2019). Amongst their concerns about the effects of the new exams, academics believed that, because students may receive a grade lower than their performance deserves, they would not feel motivated to continue with the MFL subject. Furthermore, teachers have reported concerns that “the revisions to the syllabus have had a disproportionate impact on lower attaining pupils, with 84 per cent of state schools […] saying these pupils are now less likely to take a language than three years ago” (Tinsley, 2019, cited in Long and Danechi, 2019: 14). This raises concerns about the new examinations’ secondary consequences for social equality.

Before the new examinations were introduced, similar concerns were expressed. For example, “Studies comparing the difficulty of a range of subjects at GCSE have found that getting a grade C (commonly accepted as the lowest pass grade) is harder in MFL than all subjects except the individual sciences and statistics” (Coe 2008; Ofqual 2015, cited in Parrish and Lanvers, 2018: 282). The secondary effect of this has been that school leaders, concerned about their school’s position on the league tables, have discouraged students from taking an MFL GCSE (Education Datalab 2015; Harris and Burn 2011; Lanvers 2017b; Titcombe 2008, cited in Parrish and Lanvers, 2018). Clearly, the difficulty of MFL examinations can thus directly cause a reduction in numbers of GCSE entries, and subsequently student affects numbers at A Level. Consequently, the numbers of student enrolled in university language degrees is at a ‘record low’, with 44 universities having scrapped language degrees since 2000 (All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, 2014). For this reason, it would appear critical that this issue be addressed and that MFL GCSE examinations be made fairer. Another historic issue related to GCSE and A Level examinations is that “the high-stakes exams at ages 16 and 18 lead to a focus on teaching to exams” (Lanvers, 2017: 524), which itself creates issues in terms of student enjoyment and subsequent motivation for the subject.

New OFSTED inspection framework

Another recent development has been the implementation of the new Ofsted (2019) inspection framework, which expects to see languages being taught in both primary and secondary schools as part of a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’ (Ofsted, 2019). This poses a challenge, particularly for primary schools, largely due to the lack of language specialist teachers at primary level. The new framework also aims to tackle the ‘loophole’ many schools have used to reduce Key Stage 3 to two years (7 and 8), thus enabling secondary students to drop MFL subjects after the first two years of secondary. The framework aims to ensure Key Stage 3 includes years 7, 8 and 9, thus meaning MFL will be compulsory for the first three years of secondary school. The main challenges this poses for teachers are the questions of motivation and differentiation.

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc)

The proposal that Britain should see 90% of students aiming to obtain the EBacc by 2025 (originally 2022) (BBC, 2017) has consequently put languages firmly on the list of subjects in which secondary students will need to achieve a grade A*-C at GCSE. However, Ofsted’s (2015) report on Key Stage 3 identified MFL as one of several departments whose performance was largely inadequate for delivering the government’s EBacc ambition. The extent to which this target is realistic and achievable is debateable. It is also debateable the extent to which the EBacc may boost numbers of students learning an MFL. Although there was a slight increase in numbers after its introduction, the percentage of students taking a language GCSE had dropped to just 46% in 2018, lower than the previous two years (Bawden, 2019). Overall, only 5.5% of GCSE entries in England in 2018 were for an MFL subject (Joint Council for Qualifications, cited in Bawden, 2019). The EBacc target in itself poses a considerable challenge for teachers of MFL and indeed for schools, particularly if it is to be used to measure the success of schools and to inform their position on league tables. Conversely, MFL poses a challenge to the government’s EBacc target, since “The main barrier to the EBacc ambition is languages take up (with over 80% of pupils who take four out of the five subjects missing out on a language)” (Department for Education, 2019: 33), placing further pressure on schools and teachers to ‘not let the side down’ with the language element of the EBacc.

Changing popularities of languages

Whilst historically French and German were the main two languages taught in schools, between 2003 and 2018 GCSE entries for these languages declined by more than 60%. In contrast, since Spanish first entered MFL classrooms, it has slowly but surely gained popularity. In recent years its growth has accelerated, “from 5% of pupils in the mid-1990s, to 15% in 2016/17” (Long and Danechi, 2019: 27) and with GCSE entries for Spanish increasing by 55% between 2003 and 2018 (Bawden, 2019). Furthermore, other Modern Foreign Languages such as Italian, Arabic, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese have gained popularity in recent years. Indeed, the CBI/Pearson (2019) annual Education and Skills survey of employers found that “For firms that need employees with languages other than English, major European languages continue to be those most in demand, led by German (37%), Spanish (35%) and French (32%)” (p.26). The report also states, “Foreign languages and cultural understanding will be vital for ‘Global Britain’” (ibid.). However, the British Council’s ‘Languages for the Future’ report (Tinsley and Board, 2017) found that, since the previous report in 2013, “The proportion of companies citing French and German as useful to their business has declined slightly while the proportions citing Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic have increased” (p.17). This changing landscape of different Modern Foreign Languages’ popularity itself poses a challenge moving forward, particularly in terms of training and recruiting a sufficient number of teachers with the appropriate skills to meet the growing demand for Spanish and other languages.


Despite some positive events, recent years have seen a rise in xenophobic attitudes and growing anti-European sentiment in Britain that lead to the EU Referendum in 2016 and subsequently the UK’s ‘Brexit’ from the European Union. The British Council’s recent Language Trends report (Tinsley, 2019) identified a ‘shift in attitudes’ and confirms that, in the minds of many parents and their children, “Brexit invalidates the need for language learning” (p. 15). The report explains that the negative effects of Brexit on language learning are greater in local authority-maintained schools, and slightly greater again in coastal areas. For example, 54% of secondary schools in the quintile with the highest level of free school meal (FSM) eligible pupils affirmed that groups of Year 9 students did not study a language at all, compared with 21% of schools in the quintile with the lowest number of FSM pupils (ibid.). Furthermore, “English schools with above average provision of free school meals to pupils are 50% less likely to make modern languages compulsory beyond age 14” (Lanvers, 2017: 519). This implies that Brexit has not only had an impact on language learning in secondary schools in general, but that it disproportionately effects students from lower income households. This has wider implications for social equality and ‘challenging the gap’ in language learning. Indeed, Lanvers et al. (2018) argue “stark social segregation in language learning constitutes a very UK-specific challenge to language learning” (p. 788).

In the 2019 report (Tinsley), 25% of school leaders reported a negative impact either on motivation to learn a European language or motivation to learn languages in general, due to Brexit. The previous year’s report (Tinsley and Doležal, 2018) established that 34% of state secondary schools reported Brexit as having a negative impact on student motivation or parental attitudes. Whilst Brexit has exacerbated an already existing challenge for language teachers (i.e. students and parents questioning the importance and need to learn an MFL), this challenge is arguably only going to worsen as the UK distances itself politically from the EU.

Whilst Brexit affected perceptions of the importance of foreign language learning, it has not changed the reality. Two years before the referendum, an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages launched a Framework for National Recovery in Language Learning, in which they highlighted that “only 9% of English 15 year olds are competent in their first foreign language beyond a basic level, compared with an average of 42% across 14 countries” (All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, 2014: 2), showing the UK’s failure to compete linguistically with other countries. They also highlighted the economic loss this implied: “£48 billion a year that the UK stands to lose in international sales because of language and cultural ignorance” (J Foreman-Peck, cited ibid. p. 1). Finally, they argued, “In an increasingly diverse and interconnected world, language skills are gaining rather than losing their relevance” (British Academy, cited ibid.) and “The next generation of business owners must be ‘born global’ with language skills” (British Chambers of Commerce, cited ibid.). At a similar time, the European Survey on Language Competences (Department for Education, 2013a) found that only 1% of foreign language students in England could follow complex speech (the sort needed for business), compared with a European average of 30%.

At present, more than three years after the EU Membership Referendum, the UK’s need for school leavers to be proficient in an MFL is actually greater than it was before. In a new framework proposal, titled A National Recovery Programme for Languages, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages (2019) emphasise that “The case for languages is compelling and urgent. The UK’s languages deficit is holding us back economically, socially and culturally” (p. 2). They argue “the UK’s lack of language skills already costs an estimated 3.5% of GDP” and limits the UK’s potential as an export-led economy, which is of key importance as the UK cuts ties with the free trade deals with over 70 countries that its EU membership currently provides. In December 2019, the UK had reached just 20 trade agreements, representing just 8% of total UK trade (BBC, 2019a). Foreign language skills are arguably going to be of utmost importance for the future of the UK.

The global status of English

Despite the compelling argument for learning a language for travel, the global status of English poses a challenge for this rationale. The British Council’s report on language trends in the UK found that many students “feel English dominates in the world” (Tinsley, 2019: 15), using the global status of English as a reason not to study an MFL as they feel they can manage abroad with only English. Similarly, Lanvers et al. (2018) argue that there is “stronger evidence for the ‘English is enough’ or ‘monolingual mind- set’ rationale” (p. 778) to explain student disinterest in MFL learning than Euroscepticism alone. Moreover, “The UK shares the motivation crisis with other anglophone countries, a phenomenon to be understood in the context of global English and the perception that ‘English is enough’” (Lanvers, 2018: 128). As language teachers, we can certainly not deny that English has become incredibly important globally. However, me must recognise that whilst ‘International’ English is growing, British English is becoming of lesser importance (Coleman, 2009). Coleman (2009) argues “the more other people learn English, the more the British need to learn foreign languages if we are not to lose out competitively as individuals and as a nation” (p. 123). The status of English should by no means allow the UK to fall into complacency and disregard vis-à-vis foreign language learning, and so it is important that students are made aware of the real, tangible benefits of speaking another language.


Possibly the greatest challenge in MFL teaching, both currently and moving forward, is student motivation. This issue is key, since “motivation is one of the most significant predictors of success in foreign language learning” (Coleman et al., 2007: p245). According to Parrish and Lanvers (2018), “studies on MFL motivation in the UK tend to show that students are generally poorly motivated” (Coleman, Galaczi and Astruc 2007; Lanvers 2017a; Williams, Burden and Lanvers 2002, cited in Parrish and Lanvers, 2018: 281). Furthermore, students “enjoy the lessons less than in other subjects” (Graham, Macfadyen and Richards 2012, cited in Parrish and Lanvers, 2018: 281), and they are less motivated than their peers in other countries (Bartram 2006, cited in Parrish and Lanvers, 2018: 281). Research carried out by Parrish and Lanvers (2018) found that gaining the EBacc was not a strong motivator for students to choose to study a language, but rather internal factors such as the perceived usefulness of the subject guided student decisions. They found that “offering a free choice to students or making languages compulsory are […] likely to yield better student motivation than, for example, selecting students based on achievement, ability or other factors” (p. 293). This is because “choice is also linked to higher intrinsic motivation in language learning” (p. 292). Furthermore, their study found that “students who were given free choice, or no choice at all – rather than students with higher attainment – demonstrated higher levels of intrinsic motivation towards language learning, and overall higher autonomous regulation” (p. 292).

Motivation has also been found to be affected by teachers’ own beliefs about language learning alongside the quality and style of their teaching, the attitude of school leadership towards languages, peer perceptions and enjoyment of the language subject, and the limited selection of languages to choose from (Lanvers, 2017). Interestingly, a strong motivational factor for university language students is the ‘rebellious profile’ of going ‘against the grain’ and rejecting “the (felt) imposed self of the British as poor linguists” (ibid.: p. 523). Studies also suggest that student motivation for MFL is generally high at primary school (Williams et al., 2002; Lanvers, 2017), declining during secondary and then increasing again at university for the few that continue to that level (Lanvers, 2017). Whilst many factors influence student motivation, including gender, target language, peers, teacher motivation (Atkinson, 2000) and socioeconomic background, age or year of study appears to be the most important variable (Lanvers, 2017). For university students studying German, intrinsic motivators for reaching language proficiency and their ideas about their ‘ideal self’ as being fluent in German, were key reasons for their taking a language at university (Busse and Williams, 2010).


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