Is language learning a dying art, and should more be done to resurrect it?

A recent article by the BBC reported on data from the British Council’s Language Trends 2023 report. A survey found that since 2004, when studying foreign language became optional beyond the age of 14, the number of students taking a GCSE level in a modern foreign language has significantly declined. What’s more, nearly nine in 10 pupils (out of 2,083 surveyed students at the end of year 7) did not believe that languages were likely to be needed in their jobs after school, with only 20% indicating that they were planning to study a language at GCSE level.


However, a whopping 46% said that they loved or liked learning a language, and wanted the opportunity to do so. This means that many students are choosing not to continue studying a subject they enjoy. Why?


Could the arrival of large language models (LLMs), like ChatGPT, have something to do with it? According to the World Economic Forum, language tasks account for 62% of the total time employees work. With AI’s impact, these language related-tasks, and the working hours spent on them, could be transformed into something else entirely. Do we definitely want to continue down this path?


While AI does have its place, its value depends largely on the judgements and choices of humans. For language tasks, that means human linguists. Could it be possible that students have been missing this crucial link when weighing up their future career prospects? They may be needed in a different way. But they’ll still be needed. For linguists to remain relevant in the future, we categorically need students to continue learning languages. And if that doesn’t happen? We might be looking at a future that’s completely dominated by AI. Is that what we really want?


But we’re not there yet. The initial hype around AI-enabled services is dying down, and the overall picture is becoming clearer. According to the Association of Translation Companies UK Language Services Industry Survey & Report 2023, things are looking largely positive. The UK language service industry has weathered more than a few storms in recent years, and has always bounced back stronger. As of 2022, it was valued at between GBP 1.94 and 2.20 billion – an increase of GBP 500 million on the previous year. The fact is, LSPs in the UK continue to drive international investment and exports.


It’s clear that language qualifications still lead to endless opportunities, and, more than ever, our industry is reliant on future generations to strike a productive balance between technology and human ability.


So, what can we do to attract the language learners of the future and change their perceptions of language learning? We believe that it should start in schools. The personal, economic, and societal benefits of language learning, language training, and translation are huge – and an emphasis on their importance and encouragement from schools to pursue these early on in life would change our industry for the better.

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