Modern Languages: Challenges and Solutions: The Results of the Bulletin of Advanced Spanish Opinio Modern Languages Survey (June-July 2021)

By BAS editor Stephen M. Hart (UCL) 

It is no secret that the discipline of Modern Languages finds itself at a crossroads in 2021. On the one hand, schools and universities are facing increasing difficulties in recruiting students to take modern language subjects, even as, on the other, business employers report that they are crying out for staff with better language skills. In a recent business survey, 54% of employers said they were dissatisfied with their employees’ language abilities, while another study quantified the nation’s collective ineptitude in languages as costing the economy 3.5% of GDP!1    

This is why we decided, in our UKRI-HEIF-funded project ‘Developing a Partnership Between Universities and Schools in Order to Enhance the Student Experience of the Spanish A-Level’ (March 2021-March 2022), to conduct Opinio surveys of four different but highly connected groups: ML A-level students; ML A-level teachers; ML university students; and ML university teachers. We wanted to get a 360-degree view of what is happening in Modern Languages in modern-day Britain, so we took the temperature of these four groups in the summer of 2021.  

In order to see the bigger picture we also decided to include other languages in the poll, and not just focus on Spanish. We made the surveys anonymous to encourage frank responses. We included not only A-level but IB, Pre-U and Scottish Highers as well in the questionnaires. Each survey contained between 17 and 19 questions, asking respondents about their experience of studying and teaching modern languages at A-level and at university level, with a focus on the transition between A-level and university. We asked respondents about external issues (Brexit and the pandemic) as well as internal ones (eg the content of the curriculum, what they liked/disliked, etc).  

We received 165 responses, as follows: 

A-level students: 41 responses 

A-level teachers: 24 responses 

University students: 41 responses 

University teachers: 59 responses 

In what follows I will offer some broad-brush analysis of what the surveys convey.  

Brexit was seen as having a significant impact on Modern Languages. As one A-level teacher suggested: ‘Now more than ever, students struggle to see the point in learning a language. Some of them are devastated at the loss of the UK’s participation in the Erasmus programme.’ Covid-19 was also frequently mentioned as having had a negative impact on Modern Languages in the survey. As one A-level teacher mentioned: ‘Overseas language and community service trips have stopped, as well as family travel for students, thus depriving them of motivational factors.’  

Turning to internal issues, the curriculum particularly as it related to literature and film, highlighted a number of issues. One university teacher commented: ‘Very few [students] have studied film at school’, and another said: ‘Their level of language is simply not good enough to be able to read a literary text and understand the plot, without significant help. Even finalists struggle with the nuances of the language required for sensitive literary study.’ A knee-jerk reaction to observations such as these would be to argue that the literature and film components of the A-level Modern language curriculum need to be systematised and enhanced. That way, A-level ML students will find it easier to make that transition from Sixth Form to university.  

But let’s dig down a little deeper into this. Does the answer to the question change when we ask A-level students what they want? Here are the answers of the 40 responses of the A-level students (one didn’t choose) when they listed their favourite components of the curriculum: 

Spoken/oral language 18 

Study of topics and/or themes 10 

Study of literature    6 

Written language    4 

Study of film   2 

The surveys of A-level students were interesting not only in terms of indicating that they love spoken/oral language more than anything else. They also told us why students decide to go to university to study Modern Languages as well as why they decide against it. With regard to those students who said why they would not be taking ML at university, here are some of the responses: 

  •  ‘I do enjoy Spanish, however I prefer other subjects’ 
  •  ‘I have a greater personal interest in the sciences’ 
  •  ‘I want to do medicine’ 
  •  ‘It does not relate to my future career’ 
  •  ‘I will be doing Medicine/Pharmacy but I might join a (ML) society’ 
  •  ‘All my other A levels are STEM subjects’ 
  •  ‘I want to purse a career in finance, hence I want to take Business Management at university’ 
  •  ‘I enjoyed learning the language, but I feel like after A level it becomes less about learning the language and more about studying grammatical techniques’ 

Some of the comments by A-level ML teachers resonated with these ideas: 

  • ‘We need to make languages more attractive to students. Terrible and embarrassing to see the low numbers going for MFL.’ 
  • ‘Sixth Form MFL teaching should include more professional options and not force literature and/or cinema on everyone. Some pupils are not keen, a more practical business related approach would be welcome.’ 
  • ‘Some pupils are put off by the literature component, usually the ones more inclined to science or business / economics.’ 
  • ‘Exam boards need to be creative and innovative in cultural components: not just fill the syllabus with works that teachers studied in their schooldays (e.g. Lorca)’ 

If we did so, what would this new A-level look like? Could we introduce a new option into the A-level designed to appeal to students taking STEM subjects, or Business & Economics, to make Spanish an attractive option for them? And offer this new element, in addition to Spanish film and literature? 

Should we take on board these suggestions, and ‘not force literature and/or film on everyone’?  Should we adopt a more practical ‘business-related approach’, as one respondent suggests?  Should we try to ‘make languages more attractive to students’?  And specifically cater for those students who are ‘put off by the literature component’ and who are ‘more inclined to science or business / economics’?   

AQA Spanish A-level has the following papers: 

Paper 1: Listening, reading and writing (50%) 

Paper 2: Writing (= literature and film) (20%) 

Paper 3: Speaking (30%) 

How about if we kept papers 1 and 3 the same, but introduced two new options in Paper 2 as follows: 

Paper 2: Writing (20%) 

Students write an essay on TWO out of the following FOUR options: 

  1. Spanish Literature  
  1. Spanish Film 
  1. Spanish Science & Technology 
  1. Spanish Business & Economics 

This might be complemented by the creation of new Spanish courses for first-year university students in ‘Spanish Science & Technology’ and ‘Spanish Business & Economics’, which would be optional and mainly designed for business/science students, but could be made available to all Hispanic Studies students, especially those interested in interdisciplinary topics. By doing this, we would (a) be able to draw on a larger pool of potential students who want to study Spanish; and (b) smooth the transition between A-level and university, since there would be a clear throughput in the curriculum. 

By making a small change to a course that counts for 20%, we could entice students –many of whom are A* students, as our survey shows – who intend to major in STEM subjects or Business and Economics at university. In this way we could integrate Spanish into their course of study. We could keep the literature and film options for students interested in the creative arts, but increase our student intake by actively promoting Spanish A-level as an excellent fourth option for STEM / Business & Economics students. This is, after all, what the feedback in our surveys is indicating to us. 

The proposal supported by this project is (a) to create and promote a new Spanish A-level module with options in ‘Spanish Science & Technology’ and ‘Spanish Business & Economics’; and (b) if the guinea pig is successful, to extend it to the other principal Modern Languages taught in the UK, such as French and German.  

For those of you who are interested, we will be holding a zoom webinar on “Modern Languages: Challenges and Solutions” at 3.30-5.00pm on 14 October 2021. All are welcome to attend. The programme is as follows:  

3.30-3.35pm Dr Sander Berg, convenor (Spanish, French, German: Westminster School): ‘Introduction’ 

3.35-3.50pm Professor Kim Bower (Chair in Innovation in Languages Education, Sheffield Hallam University; President, Association for Language Learning): ‘Thoughts on the Challenges Faced by Modern Languages in Schools’ 

3.50-4.05pm Oliver Hopwood (Head of Modern Languages, Westminster School; Chair, Committee, ISMLA): ‘Planning for Growth in Modern Languages: Some Fundamentals’ 

4.05-4.20pm Tom Dearing (Senior Consultant, Language Assistants Programme; Cultural Engagement, British Council): ‘The Language Assistants Programme: A microcosm of the challenges faced by Modern Languages’ 

4.20-4.35pm Stephen Hart (SELCS, UCL): ‘Report on the Bulletin of Advanced Spanish Modern Languages A-Level

Survey’; (Summer 2021 edition) 

4.35-5.00pm Roundtable: What is the Future for Modern Languages? 

If you would like to attend, please register via Eventbrite at:

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You are invited to a Zoom webinar. 

When: Oct 14, 2021 03:30 PM London 

Topic: Modern Languages: Challenges and Solutions 

Please click the link below to join the webinar:

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If you need more information, please email the convenor, Professor Stephen Hart at