The state of Languages learning in the UK


The study of languages including French, German and Spanish has seen ‘significant decreases’ leading to a concern that language learning may disappear altogether in some ‘cold spots’ of the UK.

A new report has highlighted the fall in numbers over the past decade of those studying undergraduate degrees solely focussed on languages.

Languages Learning in Higher Education: Granular Trends” is a joint study between the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) and the British Academy,

Professor Emma Cayley, Chair of UCML and Head of School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds said: “The UCML report exposes worrying gaps in geographical coverage and uneven spread of language degree provision across pre- and post-92 institutions.

“We hope that it will prove useful to language-providers in HE among other groups, helping to shape and strengthen the study of languages and cultures across the UK.”

Cold Spots

The report found considerable variation in language learning by UK region, which threatens the emergence of ‘cold spots’ – areas where language courses do not exist.

Language learning at post-92 universities has all but disappeared in some regions, which has implications for access to language studies and government attempts to address regional inequalities.

The ‘cold spots’ were identified as East Midlands, East of England, and the West Midlands. The bulk of the decreases in these regions has taken place at pre-92 universities.

Acceptances to courses at post-92 universities in the Midlands (both East and West) were starting from relatively low numbers in 2012, but have now all but disappeared.

Professor Neil Kenny FBA, Lead Fellow for Languages at the British Academy, said: “Languages Learning in Higher Education: Granular Trends’ is an enlightening read for anyone interested in the state of language learning and provision at UK universities.

“The report’s findings reveal a range of interesting short and long-term trends that can help policymakers and a wider audience formulate a clearer picture of the landscape and respond effectively.”

Fall in popularity

Commonly taught European languages (French, German and Spanish) continue to fall in popularity and single subject degrees have declined, while combined and joint degrees are more stable, the report stated.

The only areas of growth in a system marked by increased competition, when looking from a UK-wide perspective, have been languages courses taught in combination with a social science at Russell Group universities.

The North West of England is the only region to experience overall growth in the number of acceptances on language courses over the last decade. This is largely driven by an increase in students studying languages with a social science.

Professor Cayley said, “We are lucky in Leeds to have one of the largest and most diverse Schools of its kind in the UK and are supported in this by the global ambitions of the University and the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures.  

“We were delighted to work with the British Academy on this second Granular Trends report, and hope that it will prove useful to language-providers in HE among other groups, helping to shape and strengthen the study of languages and cultures across the UK.”

Further information

Picture: Adobe Stock.

For more details, please contact Neil Howson in the University of Leeds Research Communications Team by email on