The German ambassador to the UK has expressed a keen interest to “cast the net even wider” in strengthening German language learning after A-Level entries in the subject have almost halved in the past decade.
Miguel Berger raised concerns to first minister of Scotland Humza Yousaf in November that the number of Scottish pupils studying German is “dramatically low” and in the same month hosted a forum entitled “making the case for German” at the German Embassy in London.
Berger said he would like to run a follow-up event in 2024 involving influencers and media representatives, promoting German through positive news stories that reach a wider audience.
He said: “Knowledge of German is a huge asset, particularly as Germany remains the largest economy in Europe and German is the mother tongue of more people in Europe than any other language.”
Just 2,210 students sat German A-Levels in 2023, a drop of 17% on the previous year and a fall of almost 48% since 4,242 entries were recorded in 2013.
“This is a truly dramatic decline, which is deeply worrying especially as it is an ongoing trend,” Berger said.
“When I visit British and German companies in the UK one thing that people tell me is that they are now more than ever actively searching for employees with German language skills.
“But language learning is not just of immense value in terms of employability. It is also the gateway to another culture, encouraging friendship, trust and understanding across borders, and these are exactly the qualities that we want to see embedded at the heart of the future relationships between the UK and its European neighbours.”
French has also suffered a decline in A-Level entries, with an almost 40% drop in 2023 compared to 2013, while Spanish has seen an increase of 7%.
Goethe-Institut London, a cultural organisation promoting the study of the German language, announced last year its participation in a nationwide language hubs programme to boost the number of pupils studying modern foreign languages.
The project is a £14.9 million investment over three years, led by University College London and funded by the government’s Department for Education.
Within the programme, the Goethe-Institut will implement the German Promotion Project (GPP) to champion German learning in English schools and combat decline in GCSE and A-Level uptake.
Andrea Pfeil, deputy director at Goethe-Institut, said the government policy review which made modern languages optional beyond the age of 14 in 2004 as a primary factor in falling language study among UK pupils.
“There was a very steep decline in German in particular because it is often seen as a language that is more challenging. But that is due to a perception of the language and the grammar, which you don’t necessarily need right away,” she said.
Pfeil also claimed the comparatively small number of contact hours for language teaching in the UK curriculum to be an issue.
“In Germany, from Year Four or Five you have four to six hours of English per week. And here we have two, sometimes three hours of language teaching,” she said.
“It’s quite frustrating for students to feel they can’t achieve a higher level or feel confident in using the language, which can then affect their subject choices.”
She explained that Brexit has further impacted students’ decisions to take up languages at A Level, with visa costs and extensive admin potentially deterring pupils.
She added: “The Goethe Institut delivers career days all over the country and it really upsets me when students are keen to go to Germany to learn the language, but now it’s not as free and easy as it used to be.
“It’s something I feel has been taken away from a generation that wasn’t actually able to make the choice at the time.”
Despite falling German A-Level entries, Pfeil says she feels optimistic about the future of the language in the UK.
“We have a window of opportunity now and we have to use it to be able to stop this vicious circle of no students, no teachers and no people with German language skills on the job market,” she said.
“We can’t stick to an attitude of ‘British people are not interested in languages’ – it’s not true and we cannot make young people think that it’s a skill they cannot learn.”
Kate Cotton, head of German at St Paul’s School in Barnes, said: “The drop in uptake of German at A-level nationally is very worrying, particularly at a time when it is more important than ever to learn a foreign language.”
St Paul’s has run an exchange with the Otto von Taube Gymnasium school in Munich for 30 years alongside other educational trips to Germany as well as a German theatre festival.
“Having the ability to speak German opens the door to history, music, art, literature, cinema and beyond,” Cotton said.
“Even though many Germans speak English, experience shows that being willing to speak German helps to break down barriers and build trust and relationships really quickly, countering the image of the linguistically lazy Brit.
“In addition, taking a language such as German at A-level is highly prized by top universities who recognise the skill and rigour involved in learning a language.”
Izzy Reese, who studied German at GCSE and A-Level and is now a first-year student of German and English at Oxford University, said it was extremely disappointing to have experienced the decline of interest in the language first-hand.
“Over the course of my studies, my classes have steadily dwindled in size and for a subject that relies so heavily on interaction between students it’s a pretty dire situation,” she said.
“I understand it’s part of a larger trend among modern languages, but it’s a shame and it’s unfair that German has the worst reputation of all of them.
“As someone who has been able to enjoy everything that German has to offer: the challenging yet satisfying grammar, the great literature and the interesting little connections with English that pop up everywhere, it hurts to think that other kids might not ever get to experience that.”