Spanish is helping to reverse the decade-long decline in the number of students taking language GCSEs.
Carla Cox had just returned from a holiday in Spain when she was asked by school to make her GCSE choices. She’d enjoyed visiting the country and, having spent time experimenting with Spanish, realised she would be able to get around more easily if she was a fluent speaker.
“There are places you could go as a backpacker where people speak English, but they would obviously be more touristy places,” she said, adding that she hopes to explore South America. “I think it would be more interesting to go to places where they don’t speak English, where you get a better idea of the culture.”
Cox isn’t the only young person with a growing interest in Spanish. The number of UK students taking GCSEs in a foreign language rose 17% last summer, a turnaround welcomed by educationalists, who warned that interest in the subject area had plummeted over the past decade. Of the three main language GCSEs studied in UK schools, Spanish is the only one to be increasing in popularity year-on-year since 2011: while entries to French and German this summer remained steady, Spanish continued to soar. The number of students taking the subject is up by almost a third on 2012.
Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA exam board, predicts that it is a matter of time before Spanish overtakes French to become the most commonly taught language in schools.
Its popularity is down to a number of a cultural factors, according to Simon Coffey, course tutor of PGCE French and Spanish at King’s College London, who points to Spain’s popularity as a family holiday destination. The number of Brits travelling there this year increased by 5.8% on 2013: “We’re always asking people why, and the same reasons crop up – the perceived importance of Spanish in the world and also the fact that people go on holiday there and we can’t underestimate the importance of that as a factor.”
Memories of a week in Benidorm with mum and dad don’t make Spanish cool – that’s down to Shakira. Yes, really. Coffey points to the growing mainstream appeal of American Latino culture that has followed in the footsteps of fast food, hip-hop and Hollywood to become an American cultural export to the UK. “Spanish is cool partly because of the holiday factor in the European sense but also because it’s got Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, all the famous Latino singers in the States,” he said. “French and German don’t have that sort of global appeal because they’re not present in youth culture in the same way.”
Kristina Hardy, a Spanish teacher at Helenswood Academy in East Sussex, agrees. She has noticed that students are attracted to the Latino culture they see on TV. “Students are used to hearing Spanish more in music – like Shakira. They go mad listening to her songs,” she said. TV programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing, which features traditional Latin American dances such as the paso doble and the tango, have had an influence, she adds.
According to Coffey, Spanish appeals to a much wider audience. “German and French have for a long time now suffered from a sort of class prejudice – they tend to appeal in particular to middle class children, whereas Spanish has a much more democratic appeal for reasons which we need to research, and it seems to appeal to a broader range of socio-economic groups.” The gender gap of Spanish students is narrower, with more boys studying the language, he adds.
There is the myth that Spanish is easier than French, said Coffey. He said that at a basic level, Spanish grammar seems a lot easier than French or German, and this could well be a pull. “In terms of pronunciation and spelling it’s also easier than French because it’s spelt more phonetically. I can say a word in French, and people haven’t got a clue how to spell it – it’s got five vowels together or something. Spanish is easier for children, especially those who struggle with writing.”
The growing popularity of Spanish may not be ideal for French and German – but in the current climate, it’s something to be positive about.
Though a recent rise in applications to language GCSEs offers a glimmer of hope to linguists, the picture is still bleak. The drastic falls in the numbers studying languages is yet to be reversed at A-level or degree level, and some universities have been forced to close their foreign language departments.
For Coffey, the situation is so depressing that a surge in popularity for any language is good news. “Numbers for A-level have dropped dramatically for modern languages and they continue to decline. Any success story is good, and Spanish is a success story, relatively speaking.”