Warnings issued over lack of linguists

PORTSMOUTH business leaders and academics have issued stark warnings over the potential ramifications of falling numbers of language students.

Tuesday, 24th July 2018, 8:33 pm
Updated Tuesday, 24th July 2018, 8:59 pm
German Teacher of the Year Tom Surgeon

As pupils across the region await examination results there will be fewer students than ever before celebrating success in Modern Foreign Languages.

The Association of Translation Companies and Fareham-based translation company Intonation have both warned about the potential implications of this trend.

Managing director and ATC council member Dan Peachey said British firms need translators to do business in Europe.

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'German Teacher of the Year' Tom Surgeon alongside Headteacher Julie Summerfield

The 40-year-old said: '˜At a time when there is an increasing need for effective global communication we have fewer UK translators coming through and we are lagging further behind our European counterparts.'

Mr Peachey believes this could lead to seriously damaging consequences for the UK economy.

'˜We need more qualified translators to help British companies target the European export market,' he said.

'˜The decline in pupils studying German is particularly worrying.

'German Teacher of the Year' Tom Surgeon

'˜German is the most widely spoke business language in Europe and they are one of our biggest trading partners.

'˜Translators will have to play a critical role in winning new contracts.'

University of Portsmouth Translation Studies course leader, Begona Rodriguez de Cespedes, believes the government need to be doing more.

'˜The message needs to come out that linguistic skills are essential for business abroad,' she said.

German Teacher of the Year Tom Surgeon

'˜Locals always appreciate a conversation in their native language and if you localise your business documentation you will be more successful.'

Both the NHS and legal system are also set to suffer due to a shortage of linguists.

'˜We are a multicultural society and the NHS requires a massive amount of interpreters,' Mr Peachey said.

'˜The court system also has a serious shortage of translators. I am aware of incidents where cases have ended up being '˜thrown out' because there were not enough interpreters,' added Mr Peachey.

Association of Translation Companies Council Member Dan Peachey

As a port city the issue is particularly pertinent to Portsmouth. 

Nigel Wonnacott is group head of communications at Brittany Ferries.

He is concerned about the effects of a diminishing pool of linguists.

Mr Wonnacott said: '˜The reality for Brittany Ferries is that it is absolutely essential we look for people who have strong language skills. If we lose the base of local linguists then it could become a problem for us here in Portsmouth.'

He added: '˜If you are working at a check-in-desk then you are going to be dealing with a multitude of languages, particularly French and Spanish.

'˜We as a company rely on a good base of bi-lingual speakers to be able to do our job.'

Begona Rodriguez de Cespedes - Translation Studies Course Leader Portsmouth University


National figures from the Joint Council for Qualifications revealed:

n Between 2014 and 2017 German GCSE numbers fell by 27 percent with French reducing by 22 percent.

n A level German students similarly fell by 13 percent with French suffering a 9 percent decrease.

n UCAS application figures 2012 to 2017 showed that the number of UK students applying to study European language courses decreased by 22.8 percent with a 17.5 percent fall in non European languages.


Horndean Technology College has '˜bucked' the national trend by seeing a massive increase in the uptake of modern foreign languages, and in particular German.

Headteacher Julie Summerfied said the school currently has the highest uptake of GCSE German in the area.

Currently the German cohort covers 100 students across four teaching groups.

Ms Summerfield affords much of the credit to award winning teacher, Tom Surgeon.

'˜Tom has had a marked impact on the uptake of German at our college. There is no doubt that the take up has emanated from Tom's enthusiasm, commitment and passion to promote German at every opportunity,' said Ms Summerfield.

Tom recently received the accolade German Teacher of the Year at an awards ceremony at the Swiss Embassy in London.

Mr Surgeon, 32, said: '˜I didn't expect to win. It turned out to be a magical day.'

Despite expressing his frustration at the national decline in students opting for MFL Mr Surgeon does believe the situation can be rectified.

'˜Fundamentally if you hold true to your love of language and you keep it simple and fun then I see no reason why the uptake of languages can't increase nationally,' Mr Surgeon said.


Common consensus for the decline is very much focused around the perception of value in learning a language and the provision of quality teaching.

'˜Fundamentally the dwindling numbers has to be put down to teaching and learning. Ultimately if you don't ensure students are enjoying the lesson then it is not going to end well,' award-winning teacher Tom Surgeon said.

'˜Raising uptake is about ensuring schools have inspirational teachers to engage students to want to do a language,' added Ms Summerfield.

The ATC believe language teaching needs to start much earlier.

'˜Students need to start learning languages as an integral part of the curriculum from an earlier age. It needs to become ingrained in children that languages are important,' said Mr Peachey.

While Mr Peachey believes part of the process of marginalisation began when languages became no longer compulsory in 2010, Ms Summerfield disagrees.

'˜From my experience the minute you force students to do a subject they lose the love of that subject and that is not conducive to effective learning,' said Ms Summerfield.


Ultimately the link between teaching and option uptake cannot be ignored.

In my 15 years in the teaching profession I would inevitably feel a personal sense of deflation if I failed to match or exceed the previous year's uptake.

The current situation has the potential to create a vicious circle of a self fulfilling prophecy.

Inevitably fewer language students will lead to fewer linguists and a diminishing pool of inspirational teachers to select from.

The ATC believe that due to the perception of languages being a more challenging option schools will sometimes remove MFL subjects from the curriculum or not encourage certain students down this path. 

This is a strong accusation, but as schools continue to operate in an environment stifled by the parameters of Ofsted driven targets there is the concern that subjects can become marginalised due to the fear of failure.

As a teacher I remember students being shoehorned into IT rooms to study a range of coursework-based BTECs worth the equivalent of four GCSEs yet somehow covered in only half the time.

Inevitably this had a positive impact in ensuring school's reached their targets of five GCSEs '“ but there were serious questions regarding the educational value for students.

I do not necessarily question the integrity of school's making such decisions but the overwhelming suffocating pressure of accountability which could lead to curriculum provision being compromised in the necessity to ensure targets are met.


















Nigel Wonnacott - Brittany Ferries