Language learning in Scotland: a 1 + 2 approach

Report and recommendations from the Languages Working Group on Scotland's language education policy.


Where are we now?

1. We know that there is considerable innovative practice in relation to the teaching of languages at all levels in Scotland's schools. The 2011 Modern Languages Excellence Report highlighted imaginative approaches to the teaching of modern languages in primary and secondary schools across Scotland and also set out to counter certain negative cultural attitudes which serve to limit opportunities for language learning. Schools are developing more ways of encouraging pupils to take an interest in language learning. In some areas also there is a growth in Gaelic Medium Education.

2. However, inspection evidence indicates that practice in delivering modern languages varies in quality. In addition, we have seen a long-term overall decline in the numbers of pupils achieving National Qualifications in languages. In modern European languages the uptake across all languages is declining with the exception of Spanish. In French, traditionally the first additional language for the majority of pupils, there has been a steady decline. In German, the decline has been rapid. Italian, from a low base, is in decline. In Gaelic, the number of presentations for qualifications is relatively stable, although at low base.

3. In the primary sector, despite innovative practice in some schools in beginning language learning early, children are not expected to experience modern language learning until P6. Some primary children do not experience language learning at all, due to staffing or other difficulties. There can be issues at the point of transition from primary to secondary school in terms of continuity of language learning. Some schools still offer learners subject choices in the early part of the secondary school, with the option to give up language learning before the end of their broad general education. Furthermore, a number of schools across the country experience disappointingly low uptake in languages to certificate level with a consequent decline in the number of pupils sitting SQA examinations in modern languages.

4. The decline in language uptake is not peculiar to Scotland but also applies in other parts of the UK. It is often suggested that a contributory factor to the decline in study of languages in school is the predominance of English as the primary language for international communication, in particular through the World Wide Web and in business. This has led to a culture throughout the UK that for those whose mother tongue is English there is no real requirement to learn any additional language. However, this attitude stands in the face of the reality that 75% of the world's population do not speak English, and only 6% of the world's population speak English as the mother tongue. In terms of the World Wide Web in 2000, English represented 51% of language usage on the internet; by 2011 this was down to 26.8%. In addition, there are countries whose economies will have a stronger role in future which do not use English as the first language of communication. This is particularly true of China but also of countries such as Russia and Brazil. In simple terms, young Scots can no longer afford to learn only the English language.

Educational benefits

5. The Working Group takes as its starting point the confident belief that learning another language has positive educational benefits which contribute to the overall cognitive and linguistic development of children and young people. The world in which even our youngest children find themselves is one in which the ability to communicate is paramount. This should be nurtured throughout their time in school and throughout their lives with access to learning additional languages from the earliest stage. Research evidence indicates that learning another language can foster a deeper understanding of one's own language and can assist young people's cognitive development in a variety of ways. These include enhanced mental flexibility, increased ability to deal with complexity, improved problem solving, greater learning capacity, an increase in interpersonal skills and improved academic achievement and attainment across a range of subjects. For example, research shows that children in GME also find learning another (third) language easier than children in English medium.

6. Under the current model of language learning, which is expressed as an entitlement for young people, most, though by no means all, children experience language learning at least from Primary 6. However, the Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes for modern languages are relevant to the development of an approach to additional language learning from the earliest years.


Email: Pam Semple

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road

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