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Finding a Balance?

16th August 2019

Do we really need to set up sciences and languages in opposition, giving young people the idea that they are somehow mutually exclusive?

Statistics can be interpreted in many ways, but let’s enjoy the positives where we find them. Yesterday’s A-level results for England, Wales and Northern Ireland revealed that for the first time, female science students outnumbered males. Just over 50% of science A-levels are now studied and sat by girls. We must now hope that this generation go on to channel their talent into STEM careers, becoming ground-breakers and role models for those who follow.

Less positively, language learning in British schools is in long-term decline. A marginal increase in the study of Spanish doesn’t make up for dramatic slumps in the numbers learning French and German. While language study is part of the National Curriculum for pupils in England aged 7-14, interest in taking those studies further, to A-level and beyond, isn’t being stimulated. In parts of Europe, learning a second language is encouraged for children as young as three. It’s not uncommon for German teenagers to be proficient in both a second language and a third. Even leaving aside the cultural doors opened by multilingualism, it’s a proven fact that language learning is an outstanding brain-training exercise that increases speed of thought and enhances decision making. To follow the most basic economic logic, the 21st century Brit who becomes fluent in another language shouldn’t have too many problems finding a job.

In recent years we’ve heard a number of arguments that young students, notably girls, are abandoning language learning in favour of STEM subjects. Some people have taken those arguments a stage further and suggested that it’s better for young people to focus on more “practical” and “useful” subjects than to spend time on linguistics. Do we really need to set up sciences and languages in opposition, giving young people the idea that they are somehow mutually exclusive?

Over eighty years after her death, the name Marie Curie is globally recognised. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only person ever to win two Nobels in two different categories. Her accomplishments and legacy in chemistry and physics are an inspiration, and they always will be. Marie Curie spoke five languages. Didn’t exactly hold her back, did it?

We applaud the rise of STEM studies among young women, and we applaud any moves towards equality of opportunity in education and employment. We also believe language learning and multilingual communication have a huge part to play in securing happy, prosperous futures for all our children. And there's no reason why we can't all get on board with both.