Earlier this year, exam boards AQA and OCR announced plans to scrap a number of community languages from the British curriculum. The list of languages, including modern Hebrew, Panjabi, Polish, Gujarati and more, planned to be scrapped by exam board AQA can be found here.
It has sent shock waves through different communities, with many members of the public, teachers, community leaders and several politicians condemning the action. The decision to scrap the vast majority of community languages follows claims that there are not enough examiners in these languages, a low number of pupil uptake and an overall declining interest in learning foreign languages. Both exam boards also stated that they are making the cuts by 2017 in response to changes in the way that exams are assessed. The shake-up of A-levels and GCSEs comes after a study found that 43% of subjects, including Environmental Sciences, Applied Science, Human Biology and more, are not in ‘ overall demand.’
“They are important qualifications, both for speakers in the community but also for the outward-looking trade in the multicultural country that Britain needs to be in the 21st century.” Tristram Hunt
This comes following statistics showing that, in 2014, 625 students sat a GCSE exam in Gujarati and 19 studied it as an A-level. In the same year, a total of 167 students gained an A-level in Panjabi and 42 students sat an A-level exam in Bengali. In addition, the latest statistics from the English Baccelaurate (EBac) has shown that the numbers of pupils taking up Portuguese has increased by 19%, Arabic by 18% and Polish by 18%. Despite the data, these are the very same community languages that OCR and AQA plan to scrap.
I’m not too sure how I feel about this. A part of me is deeply saddened and angry by these exam boards’ decision, while another part of me feels quite hopeless and hurt. As someone who is of Panjabi descent, was born, grew up and received formal education in the UK, this piece of news has felt like a slap in my face. I also find it ironic that the languages being scrapped are also the ones which represent the largest ethnic minority groups in the UK.
We live in a world that is increasingly shrinking, becoming more and more globalised, the proposed plans to scrap community languages has baffled me. On one hand, there’s the argument that “loads of people speak English, what’s the point of languages” and “well English is pretty much India’s second language” to “It’s a waste of time learning those sorts of languages; we can’t even use them.” Firstly, not everyone in India speaks perfect English despite there being a large middle-class. Secondly, languages are a hugely important part of our lives – it’s basic communication. Thirdly, there is so much competition for jobs and people are constantly jostling to have the edge over other candidates; what better skill to have than a language? Fourthly, it is a talent to be able to learn another language – it has been proven that being bilingual keeps your brain sharp and agile.
Since taking up languages at GCSE level were made optional in 2004, numbers have plummeted.
However, on the other hand, many have dismissed any anxieties and said that this shouldn’t dismay those who wish to learn community languages. Some people have suggested that individuals turn to the Internet, local community centres and places of worship should rise to the challenge and start running after-school classes which will teach these languages. This itself is not a bad idea, but the only setback (that I can think of) is that many employers will want to see an officially recognised qualification to back up fluency in a language.
It is a shame to see the importance of languages, outside of Europe, have been cut due to low pupil-uptake and in an attempt to save money. Growing up and studying in a British school, I wasn’t even aware that I could have sat a GCSE in Hindi or Panjabi – the option had never been considered or brought to my attention. It makes me wonder, how many students actually know that they could have gained an academic qualification in their mother tongue?
It further pains me to see that European languages such as German, French and Spanish haven’t seen such cuts despite statistics showing that less than 40% of students choose to learn these languages. It feels as though we have definitely attached financial value/economic gain to certain languages and discarded those that we ‘cannot make money from.’
Learning another language strengthens your brain and helps to protect it from dementia and Alzheimer’s
As someone who is fluent in several languages, both European and Asian, it feels like I’ve been thrown into a parallel universe where things such as the arts, languages and creativity were not appreciated. I often have to pinch myself, hard, to realise that this is in fact happening to us in this day and age. What saddens me even more is that there are not enough of us speaking up and against this. Too many have forgotten the trouble that immigrants go to in order to study English, learn it, adopt an English accent and show it as a sign of integration. This often comes at the risk of losing their own mother tongue and not encouraging their children to learn it, take pride in their heritage and feel confident when speaking it. I remember how ashamed I felt whenever my grandmother spoke Panjabi to me in public.
I believe that community languages are an inherently important part of our lives, especially for those of BAME heritage. For many of us, including myself, it is the only solid link that we have to our heritages and cultures – which is why it hurts me so much. It almost indirectly says to us that ‘your language isn’t worthy of our time and money’ which further suggests that the ethnic groups behind these languages are also not worthy of public time, money and resources. And, for me, I guess that’s why I suddenly feel hopeless.