Scottish students only like Spanish as multilingual policy deadline nears

Spanish is the only European modern language to see a constant increase in popularity since 2015, according to SQA statistics, despite almost ten years of Scottish Government funding.

In 2020, 5813 National 5 students, 2091 Higher students and 464 Advanced Higher were recorded to be studying for their Spanish qualifications which would make it among the highest uptake of Spanish in Scotland since the Curriculum for Excellence examinations began.

Why is Spanish on the rise in Scotland?

The reason for Spanish’s increased popularity is hotly debated from the overall enjoyment and easiness to learn, the annual pilgrimages Brits take to Spain and the success of the 1+2 multilingual policy which is due to be fully implemented by 2021, according to West Lothian 1 + 2 Development Policy Officer, Zoe Gordon.

Mrs Gordon said: “From teaching both of them [French and Spanish] Spanish is more phonetical.

“And I think that is what I see with the engagement and enjoyment in primary children is that they find Spanish easier. So, I don’t know if that then translates into these results later on.”

When asked why they chose to sit Spanish qualifications over other European languages, these former Spanish students said:

Erin McKeown, 22, Dundee: “I think Spanish is a more universal language considering how widespread its influence is and I have proved myself right when it came in handy on my exchange to the US.”

Katie Rough, 19, Linlithgow : “I love that through learning a language you discover a lot about the culture and, having already taken French, I knew that languages were enjoyable to study.”

Lloyd Melville, 20, Stirling: “We used to go to Spain quite a lot when I was wee so it seemed a logical choice.

“Plus, I felt like it was easier to get the hang of than French.”

Kim Mannion, 23, Glasgow: “It was actually a mistake as I had chosen French but was put in the wrong class — I liked them both though so I just stuck with the Spanish and was glad I did.

“I do remember Spanish lessons at school seemed more fun than French, the culture seemed more fun too.”

Cosima Griffin, 22: “The foreign language department at school was a big factor, the teachers were all very enthusiastic and supportive which encouraged me to pursue languages.”

What is the 1+2 approach?

The 1+ 2 multilingual policy is a Scottish Government policy that was introduced in 2011 in line with the EU’s language policy initiative to promote linguistic diversity across Europe and encourage as many people to speak two other languages in addition to their native tongue as possible.

In Scotland, the policy starts in the ‘L2 stage’ as early as P1 by making sure every child is exposed to a second language up until S3 and the end of broad education.

From P5 onwards, an additional foreign language is introduced up until S3 which is known as the L3 stage.

In April 2017, the Scottish Government injected an additional £24.2 million to the Education budget to support local authorities reach the August 2021 deadline.

Is the 1+ 2 approach working?

While Spanish appears to be on the rise in Scottish schools, French is still clinging on to the top spot with an impressive 7,752 National 5 students recorded to be studying French last year.

While it remains the most popular “starting off” language for pupils in the L2 stage, according to Mrs Gordon, French is on a sharp decline when it comes to students sitting exams.

From 2015 to 2020, French has seen a 26.5% decrease in the number of students sitting their National 5s which means that less students are going on to study the language at an advanced level.

German and Italian tell a similarly bleak story. National 5 German uptake is down by 28% in five years and the number of students continuing on to study Higher German has decreased from 2188 students in 2015 to 1712 students in 2020.

In contrast, Italian has reported a more positive trend with its National 5 uptake up by 28% in the same five year period. However, it is the least popular and least accessible European modern language in Scottish schools with its highest uptake back in 2016 with a dwindling 332 National 5 students.

According to the Scottish National Centre for Languages (SCILT) the percentage of pupils pursuing an Advanced Higher language qualification is notably lower than science subject equivalents. In 2019, SCILT compared modern languages uptake with Advanced Higher Biology, Chemistry and Physics and found that only 4.4% chose to pursue even one language to Advanced Higher compared to 7.5% in Biology, 7.9% in Chemistry and 5.3% in Physics.

Yet, the desire is there. In February 2016 , the Scottish Government surveyed attitudes towards language learning in Scottish schools which reported that 89% of Scots believe that learning a foreign language from five years old is important.

These statistics are concerning but Mrs Gordon remains confident that, at least in West Lothian, fully implementing the 1+2 policy by August is an achievable goal but not necessarily a sustainable one.

Is 1+2 a sustainable policy for the future?

With the implementation deadline fast approaching, any further funding for the 1+2 development policy teams is undecided and increasingly unlikely.

Mrs Gordon said: “They [the Scottish Government] needs to provide funding because without the role I’m doing and the team that works with me, I think it [foregin language attainment ]will fall back down.

Currently, council development teams are responsible for raising awareness of the 1+2 policy across schools, provide training for teaching and support staff, observing and monitoring language teaching across their local area and sharing further language resources for all age groups. All of which, Mrs Gordon, considers at risk.

Mrs Gordon said: “Without investment it can’t properly be sustained. You need to give teachers the resources, the confidence and ultimately it needs money.”

Should Scottish language teaching be moving away from Europe?

Scotland leaving the EU with the rest of the UK on the 1st of January will not only redefine Scotland’s relationship with Europe but also its languages which will leave Scotland, Mrs Gordon predicts, even further behind.

In 2016, Eurostat reported that on average two thirds of working age (25–64) Europeans knew at least one foreign language. While Sweden reported the highest percentage of foreign speakers at 96.6% in the EU, the UK recorded the lowest with an embarrassing 34.6%.

It is too soon to tell what further impact the Brexit process will have on Scottish students studying European languages but it is clear at least geographically that they will always be important, according to Mrs Gordon.

Mrs Gordon said: “I think it’s not necessarily about moving away from European going to others, I just think we should explore multiple different languages and give children the opportunity so that they can explore the ones they want to.

Chinese is now considered the world’s most spoken language with 1.3 billion native speakers, with an estimated 917 million speaking Mandarin, according to Babbel. There is undoubtedly pressure for Scottish students to be learning this invaluable language instead.

In West Lothian, 15 schools have been working through a 10-week block with virtual teacher in China. It has been incredibly popular, especially in West Lothian’s less affulent areas.

Mrs Gordon said: “There’s no way they would probably ever have been exposed to this and or even have a chance to visit China.

“They are having their eyes opened to a wider world, into the culture which naturally just comes in with learning a language.

Exploring languages outside Europe is something we should be encouraging but it is not easily done and should not be at the cost of the progress that 1+2 approach has made in the last decade, according to Mrs Gordon.

Teaching a foreign language is reliant on teacher’s having the expertise which if the 1+2 approach has taught us anything, it cannot be achieved over night.

Mrs Gordon said: “I’m embarrassed to say I can’t speak a word of is Gaelic.

“And I think that’s something we should be investing in more.

“Why are we not doing more of that in our schools?

“Gaelic is throughout our country, in our history, road signs and place names and i think we should celebrate that.”

For now at least, language learning in Scotland seems to be firmly within the confines of Europe. However, with Spanish now the world’s second most spoken language, it might not feel that way for much longer.

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Becca Carey

Becca Carey

SEO journalist @ Newsquest covering national news, entertainment and lifestyle + stories from Oxfordshire and Wiltshire | NCTJ qualified @ Glasgow Clyde College