Less than half of English pupils choose to learn a modern foreign language at school, a new report has found.
The proportion of English students sitting foreign language exams at the end of their compulsory education — at age 16 — stood at 47% in 2017, the British Council revealed in its Language Trends survey released on Wednesday.
In 2002, that figure stood at 76%.
The report warned of rising inequality in access to language learning with schools taking in larger proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals (an indicator of poverty), offering fewer hours of language learning per week or allowing pupils to drop out more easily.
Fee-paying schools, however, are shown to have a higher uptake of languages, offer a more diverse range of languages and provide more opportunities for international experience.
The 2016 vote to leave the European Union has also been found to have had an impact on pupil motivation and parental attitudes.
Some 34% of state secondary schools said the result of the referendum is having a negative impact on language learning.
One respondent told the survey that they “regularly have questions from pupils or parents about the value of learning a language, as 'we don’t need it' and 'everyone should speak English.'"
"Brexit is often touted as a reason not to do a language," the respondent added.
Just 10% of respondents reported that senior management in the school they worked in had become more positive towards language study as a result of Brexit.
Spanish to replace French
Although French remains the most popular language for English pupils, its popularity is declining fast. Since 1997, the number of students taking French A-level exams — a college leaving qualification — has dropped by over a third to just 8,300.
Spanish is England’s second modern language and contrary to French, its popularity is growing.
The proportion of A-level pupils studying Spanish has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, to reach 7,600 last year. The British Council estimates that on current trends, it’s likely to overtake French at A-level by 2020.
Coming in a distant third is German, with fewer than 3,500 A-level pupils taking it up last year. In 1997, that figure stood at 9,000.