Students in the UK may be losing their interest in and passion for languages as a direct result of harsh marking at A-level.

A group of academics wrote to the Guardian newspaper this week to say that “unfair grading” of language qualifications up to and including A-level is blighting linguistic departments and causing the uptake of language degrees to fall. Because of this, those with a talent for linguistics are discouraged and so drop the subject, while others who get good grades before A-level abandon the subject for fear that strict marking will bring down their grade average.

Language learning in decline

An investigation by the Guardian has revealed that since 1998, more than one-third of British universities have discarded their specialist European language degrees. Data taken from the UCAS course listings for 1998, 2007 and 2014 reveal that in the last 15 years, there has been a 40 per cent drop in the number of universities offering French, German, Spanish or Italian qualifications at either a single honours level or as a joint degree with a second language. This decline is gathering pace, and has seen a marked acceleration in the last few years, the newspaper warns.

Southampton University’s head of modern languages Michael Kelly told the newspaper that if the current pace of decline continues, between two and three language departments will close every year. The former Labour and coalition government adviser on modern linguistics noted that the outcome of this would be students having less choice in both the subjects on offer and where they study them.

However, it’s not only students who are suffering, according to experts in the sector. Director of the Oxford German Network and professor of German at Jesus College, Oxford Katrin Kohl said: “These findings confirm that the UK has in recent years been systematically squandering its already poor linguistic resources.” Indeed, the Guardian previously reported that in 2012 William Hague had spoken with a group of language professors, upon whom he’d pressed his concern that there was an urgent need for language skills in the UK. Such skills are necessary not only to improve the country’s position in business but also to assist it in diplomatic efforts.

Last month, the foreign secretary opened a new language centre at the Foreign Office in London in order to boost the linguistic capabilities of its diplomats. Opening the new centre, he said that being able to speak another language was a “fundamental skill” for a diplomat as without it they couldn’t hope to really get under the skin of the country they are working in. Mr Hague said language skills also help diplomats identify potential movements and events taking place, through social media as well as the word on the street.

In UK schools and colleges, the number of young people choosing a traditional modern foreign language A-level is at its lowest rate since the mid-1990s. One reason for this is likely to be the result of the Labour government axing compulsorily language GCSEs nine years ago. Universities minister David Willetts says the previous Labour cabinet “marginalised languages in schools”, but that the coalition is aiming to reverse this. As part of this, teaching languages will become compulsorily at primary schools from September 2014.

Language skills in the workplace

Languages are a skill that people can take with them into their adult life and career, whatever industry they plan on working in. In an increasingly globalised marketplace, interpreters and translators play a vital role. From accompanying CEOs on business trips to meet potential clients, to translating web pages in order to break a new market, there is plenty to keep linguists busy. Away from traditional language careers, people who can speak another language can stand out from similar candidates when seeking work, as more and more employers recognise the value of these skills.

Nick Mair, chairman of the Independent Schools Modern Languages Association, tells the Guardian that he has spoken with employers in the legal, accountancy and banking sectors who have all said that if they have two similar candidates for a job and one of them has language skills, this is the one they will offer the job to. “There is an increasing message from the business world that it wants to employ people with languages,” he adds. If the number of UK students learning languages continues to drop, British job candidates may soon be left behind.