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Je ne parle pas français: Are French and German in danger of disappearing from Scottish schools?

Popularity of traditional languages French and German are on the decline.
Popularity of traditional languages French and German are on the decline.

French and German have been a mainstay of the Scottish curriculum for decades. But are they in danger of disappearing from our schools?

The number of pupils opting to study the languages has decreased almost every year since 2014, according to figures from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

Instead, more and more schoolchildren are choosing to study languages such as Mandarin and Spanish, with uptake of these subjects increasing exceptionally in the same period.

How many are studying French and German?

The number of pupils taking French and German in S4 has fallen significantly since National 5s replaced Standard Grades in 2014.

This may be because more are choosing to study other languages but one teacher told us the way the subjects are assessed may be partly to blame for their decline in popularity.

In 2020, a total of 7,752 pupils across Scotland took French at National 5 level, down 18% from 2014, when 9,444 did so.

Similarly, in 2014 there were 2,206 pupils who took German at National 5 level. This fell to 1,712 in 2020 – a decrease of 22%.

The number of pupils taking French and German at Higher level also decreased in the same period, falling from a total of 5,163 to 3,947.

What languages are they learning instead?

While the number of pupils seeking qualifications in French and German has declined, other languages have grown in popularity.

The number of pupils studying Spanish at National 5 level has almost doubled since 2014, rising from 2,923 to 5,814 last year.

Similarly, the number of pupils taking Chinese languages as a subject has also skyrocketed. Just one pupil in Scotland took it as a subject for National 5 in 2014, but by 2020, this had risen to 258 pupils.

Mandarin Chinese, followed by Spanish, has the highest proportion of first language speakers in the world.

Why the decline in French and German?

John Nolan has taught German in schools across Fife and Tayside for 50 years.

For him, the decline in the number of pupils taking French and German across Scottish schools is partly down to assessments themselves.

He said: “There is excessive predictability in the assessments and that can actually put kids off.

“So if (the predictability) happens at the National 5 level, then there are after effects for S5 and S6.”

John Nolan.

“In National 5 writing assessment candidates must address six bullet points of a job application and one to four are the very same year after year.

“What that means is that kids – and I’ve seen this in my teaching – are drilled, and what does that do for intellectual challenge?”

John believes that a more engaging curriculum could be key to encouraging pupils to learn modern languages, and is an advocate of fiction texts being included in French and German education.

He added: “We’ve just got drab, formulaic chunks (of text) and we hope that works.

“Unless we engage them in all sorts of ways, we will lose them. And the way to engage these youngsters is through stories, cultural information, and that keeps them – but we don’t do that.”

Learning Chinese is becoming essential, not just simply because they are a global power but also for the worthwhile learning experiences pupils can get.”

Mandarin teacher Matthew Worlock

That approach may account for Mandarin flourishing at one Dundee school.

As well as offering the language at National 4 and 5 level, Grove Academy runs a Chinese language and culture club at lunchtimes.

We previously reported on the subject’s popularity at the school in Broughty Ferry, which started offering taster sessions and recently recruited a full-time Mandarin teacher.

More than 10% of the world’s population speak Mandarin, and teacher Matthew Worlock told us: “Learning Chinese is becoming essential, not just simply because they are a global power but also for the worthwhile learning experiences pupils can get.”

How one Dundee school hopes to help Mandarin flourish in Scottish education

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