A headmaster has called for the reintroduction of compulsory language classes in schools to prevent what he called the “worrying insularity” of society getting worse.
Richard Cairns, headmaster of Brighton College, said the “sorry decline” in the number of students studying languages is “damaging on so many levels” and that the Government needs a plan to reverse the problem.
His comments came as several of his students at the independent school in East Sussex achieved top marks in a range of languages at A-level, including Mandarin.
Experts have raised concerns because the number of students studying languages at state schools has dropped, and recent Press Association analysis of Ucas data revealed the number of applications for foreign language degrees plummeted in the last decade.
More students took A-level Chinese than German this year, according to data from the Joint Council for Qualifications released on Thursday, sparking fears that the European language is heading for extinction.
Mr Cairns said: “The sorry decline in numbers studying languages is damaging on so many levels but must be of particular concern to a Government that espouses a vision of Britain as open for business with the world.
“Compulsory language education needs to be reintroduced, with a national strategy emulating the success of those in the Netherlands or Scandinavia. Otherwise, the worrying insularity in our society will only deepen.
“Contrary to what seems to be happening nationally with pupils choosing not to study languages any more, we have seen a real interest in pursuing languages.
“Pupils can study French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Russian and Mandarin here. Back in 2006, we introduced Mandarin for our pupils from the age of four and the culture of language learning and its benefits are instilled early.”
George Cook, who plays in the under-18 England rugby counties squad, transferred from Hazelwick School in Crawley to join Brighton College’s sixth form and is a head boy.
The 18-year-old got A*s in French, German, Latin and maths, and will now study French and German at Cambridge, hoping languages will help his career prospects, whatever he chooses to do.
He said: “I just picked languages up and enjoyed them. I found German the hardest, because of the order of the words, and enjoyed French the most.
“It’s really important to study languages so you can understand other cultures.
“When you go abroad there is a widespread belief everyone should speak English but we should try and understand what we can.”
All five students who studied Mandarin at Brighton College gained the highest possible mark when they received their results on Thursday – a D1 which is the equivalent of an A* under A-level alternative test the Cambridge Pre-U.
Four of them will study Mandarin at university, including two at Oxbridge.
Moyo Oloko, 18, who lives in Sussex, also gained As in French and maths. In September she starts a degree in French and Chinese at Edinburgh University and is eager to travel as part of any future career plans.
She said: “I’m really overwhelmed. I didn’t expect to do so well.
“It was compulsory in Year 7 and once I got into it I was intrigued. Then I visited China on an exchange and loved being there.
“I think learning a language is really important because you don’t just learn to speak the language, you learn a new skill set, you learn about linguistics, you learn about a different culture.
“I did find it quite difficult but it was fun.”
Her fellow Mandarin classmates who also achieved the top grade were Will Oliviero, who also gained As in chemistry and maths; Tom Burke, who also got A*s in economics, maths and further maths; Madeleine Gibson, who also gained As in history and Spanish; and James Dart, who also achieved A*s in economics and maths.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “It has never been more important for young people to learn a language in an increasingly global community.
“This is why we recently announced a new national centre of excellence alongside nine hubs across the country to drive up standards in the teaching of languages by sharing resources and best practice, backed by £4.8 million.
“In addition, we offer generous financial incentives worth up to £28,000 to recruit talented languages teachers.
“Today’s A-level results show the proportion of entries to modern foreign languages at A Level remains broadly stable.
“On top of this, since the introduction of the English baccalaureate we’ve seen an increase in the proportion of pupils taking a language, up from 40% in 2010 to 47% in 2017, and 5,000 pupils are on track to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese by 2020.”