UK degree-program enrollments in foreign languages

Ozaru‘s link in a comment on my previous post led me eventually to a report on “community languages” in higher education in Britain. The report provides numbers for those in degree programs for various foreign languages.

Students accepted on U.K. language-degree courses, 1996-2007

Language 1996 2001 2005 2007 % change 1996-2007 % of total in 1996 % of total in 2007
French 5655 4077 3964 3700 -34.57 33.02 28.83
Italian 837 786 639 2461 194.03 4.89 19.18
Spanish 2155 2331 2547 1401 -34.99 12.58 10.92
German 2288 1736 1503 610 -73.34 13.36 4.75
Russian and Eastern European 418 380 425 409 -2.15 2.44 3.19
Mandarin 165 165 352 392 137.58 0.96 3.05
Modern Middle Eastern 214 260 362 378 76.64 1.25 2.95
Japanese 272 249 331 306 12.50 1.59 2.38
Portuguese 128 117 118 141 10.16 0.75 1.10
Other Asian 161 171 142 118 -26.71 0.94 0.92
African 54 57 57 67 24.07 0.32 0.52
Scandinavian 65 36 57 19 -70.77 0.38 0.15
Other European 2200 1507 1667 1647 -25.14 12.85 12.83
Other non-European 2514 1900 1248 1185 -52.86 14.68 9.23
ALL 17126 13772 13412 12834 -25.06 100 100

(Adapted from Table 3.3 in the report)

If I understand the report correctly, the figures are not for total enrollments, just for students majoring or minoring in the languages in question. Thus, the actual enrollment numbers are likely much higher, though certainly not distributed evenly across the languages.

I’m pleased to note that the number of students in Mandarin programs has more than doubled in the last dozen years, though this doesn’t match the even more impressive growth rate for Italian. (I have no idea why Italian received such a boost, especially during a period in which most other European languages were shedding students.)

Mandarin now ranks sixth (or perhaps fifth, depending on how many Polish majors there are) among foreign language majors, with 3 percent of foreign language majors concentrating on this.

On the other hand, because native English speakers must devote a great deal more time and effort to learning Mandarin than most other languages, the levels of learning and achievement aren’t the same. Simply put, for most native English speakers Mandarin is damn hard, and students won’t gain nearly the same level of fluency in four years as they would studying most other languages.

For example, in 2002 Goldsmiths, University of London, which is the “largest provider of community languages in a PGCE,” set up its Postgraduate Certificate in Education in community languages, starting with Arabic, Mandarin, and Punjabi, and adding Urdu in 2004. So far all of the students enrolled in the Mandarin program have had “some knowledge of the language as a community/family/heritage language.” In other words, most — perhaps all — students have been ethnic Chinese and have a background in the language beyond the classroom.

Although the College does not especially seek to attract students who have some knowledge of the language as a community/family/heritage language, all the students accepted so far do have this background. This may change in the next five to ten years, as more non-native speaker students graduate with UK degrees in Mandarin, and some may wish to go on to teach it. However, this will only take place if there is good progression in the language from school to university level so that graduates can reach a high enough level in the language to teach up to A level. Currently, this is not the case, and those who have applied so far do not have this level of expertise.

Ouch. So it’s not that non-Chinese didn’t apply to the program, it’s that none of them were judged up to the requisite level of fluency to teach the language, despite having attained unversity degrees in Mandarin. (This only reinforces my worry about the drop in graduate enrollments in Mandarin in the United States.)

The report also notes, “There are no degree courses in the four most widely used community languages in England: Urdu, Cantonese, Punjabi and Bengali, although SOAS will offer a degree course in Bengali from autumn 2008.”

The situation is more promising for those taking A-levels in “Chinese.” (NB: The chart does not distinguish between Cantonese and Mandarin — even though these have separate oral exams — but lumps them together as “Chinese.” The majority will be Cantonese.)

presentations in the main community languages for GCSE and A-level examinations in 2007

GCSE and A-level examinations

(The figures for Spanish have not been included in the chart because it seems likely that most pupils study this as a foreign language rather than a community language: in 2007, 63,978 candidates sat GCSE and 7,152 A-level Spanish. Hindi is not included in this chart as it is not available at GCSE or A-Level.)

The total number of A-Level presentations in these languages in 2007 is 5347, indicating potential numbers in a good position to continue their studies in these languages in higher education. The ‘retention rate’ for most of languages listed above is high. This is a percentage calculated by comparing the numbers sitting a GCSE examination in a given year compared with those sitting an A-level in the same language two years later. It has to be regarded as a proxy measure, however, as not all those sitting A-levels took the relevant examination two years earlier. The retention rate over all languages (i.e. including French, German and Spanish), between GCSEs sat in 2005 and A-levels in 2007, is 7.5%. Most of the languages likely to be studied as community languages have a retention rate considerably higher than those typically studied as ‘foreign’ languages. Chinese is the most spectacular, with a retention rate of 78%, followed by Polish (51%) and Russian (42%). Only Bengali (3%) and Punjabi (4%) have retention rates below the overall figure. The high retention rate for the majority indicates that community language learners can, generally speaking, be regarded as committed students, and potentially good candidates for continued study of these languages in higher education.


further reading:

3 thoughts on “UK degree-program enrollments in foreign languages

  1. I agree with your conclusions (what’s going on with Italian?), but might be able to illuminate a few details.

    “If I understand the report correctly, the figures are not for total enrollments, just for students majoring or minoring in the languages in question. Thus, the actual enrollment numbers are likely much higher, though certainly not distributed evenly across the languages.”

    England, Wales and Northern Ireland don’t follow a major/minor system, and credits are a relatively recent innovation, so this comment is a little off target. Because school pupils start to specialize from age 16 and undergraduate degrees are three years, the vast majority of students take all or almost all of their courses in one subject. At many older universities, the only way to study Mandarin is to matriculate (enroll) to read (study) Chinese or Oriental Studies.

    Scotland is different – Scottish students can go to university from age 17, so traditionally have more choice in their first two years.

    On the Goldsmiths report, I personally know one guy who was accepted onto a PGCE programme to teach Mandarin as a non-native speaker. But he was exceptional – he’s got a degree in French/German, picked up Japanese with JET and Mandarin at Beijing University. People like that are unlikely to apply to Goldsmiths, it isn’t prestigious enough.

    One other point of note: Durham University (third oldest in England and Wales) actually closed their East Asian studies department in 2005, which was seen as a big blow to the discipline. See

  2. This year Edinburgh, Exeter and London (Goldsmiths College) were the only UK universites offering a Post-graduate Certificate/Diploma in Education for Mandarin/Chinese only. I applied to all three. London didn’t want to know, but I was invited to interview by Exeter and Edinburgh. Both turned me down. I heard Goldsmiths weren’t interested in recruiting UK citizens onto the course as the university would get more money in fees from foreigners. Edinburgh told me they were looking to recruit candidates with ‘near native fluency’. Exeter said the 2007 PGCE intake had only one person doing the Mandarin option.
    I am inclined to think that vested interests don’t really want schoolchildren to learn Mandarin/Chinese from those who are surely in the best position to teach them ie. native English speakers who have had to struggle and adopt strategies to make some progress with this very difficult language. Could it be that some in the Departments of Education for both England & Wales and Scotland are getting back-handers from China to ensure China has a monopoly of providing teachers for the Mandarin/Chinese market in UK schools? Or are the Chinese being even cleverer, and hindering UK schoolchildren’s progress in Chinese whilst pretending they are trying to help?

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