Tuesday 13 June 2023


Key findings:

  • Decline in language learning has plateaued at post-primary – with Spanish now the most popular language at both A-level and GCSE
  • Irish has replaced French as the second most popular language at A-level
  • Language teaching in primary schools is recovering following the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Most pupils do not see languages being part of their future career, with just 14.2 per cent of those surveyed expressing any likelihood of using languages in the future
  • The gap in language uptake continues to widen between grammar schools and secondary schools
  • Almost one in five (19%) of Year 9 pupils would like to learn Italian at school


Language learning in Northern Ireland schools is ‘slowly recovering from the pandemic’, according to new British Council research which launches today (Tuesday, 13 June 2023).

The Language Trends Northern Ireland report surveyed over 50 per cent of post-primaries, 10.5 per cent of primary schools and over 1,150 Year 9 pupils to learn more about language provision in Northern Ireland.

The research was carried out by Dr Ian Collen, Director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (NICILT) at Queen’s University Belfast and is the third report by the British Council into language trends in Northern Ireland. The 2023 report follows on from research in 2021, which found that language lessons were ‘hardest hit’ during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The report shows a more positive trend than in 2021, with the decline in language learning at post-primary plateauing. Spanish is now the language most frequently taught in Northern Ireland's schools at both GCSE and A-level, overtaking French as the most popular GCSE language in summer 2021. Up until 2021 French was the most studied language at GCSE, however, the language has been on a steep decline since the turn of the millennium.

Meanwhile, Irish has remained relatively stable at GCSE since 2007, and at A-level, it has now replaced French as the second most popular language. German figures continue to decline, with the subject offered only in 17 per cent of responding schools at Key Stage 3, and nearly a 50 per cent decrease in uptake at GCSE from 2002 to 2022.

Outside the ‘big four’ languages, schools offer several languages as part of extra-curricular or enrichment subjects at Key Stage 4, including Polish, Portuguese, Arabic and Mandarin, with a growing number of schools offering newcomer pupils the opportunity to take exams in their home or community languages (63.2% of schools in 2023 compared to 56.3% in 2021). Despite this, there has been a sharp decline in the uptake of these languages at GCSE during the pandemic.

In terms of languages that students would like to learn, Italian came out on top. Almost one in five (19%) of Year 9 pupils expressed an interest in learning Italian in addition to the language(s) they already learn at school, followed by Spanish (16.6%) and then Irish (11.3%).

When asked about the value of languages, almost all pupils do not see the potential for languages to be a part of their future careers – with just 14.2 per cent of the 1,158 Year 9 pupils surveyed expressing any likelihood of using languages in the future. However, motivation for language learning in Year 9 is still high with most young people (74%) enjoying languages at Key Stage 3.

Research shows that the gap continues to widen between grammar schools and secondary schools, with grammar schools most likely to report stable numbers for GCSE, whereas non-grammar schools are most likely to report a decline. In the grammar sector, teachers estimate 75 per cent of their Year 11s are learning a language (up from 65% in 2021), as opposed to 16 per cent in non-grammar schools (down from 23% in 2021). In addition, 11 responding secondary schools reported having no pupils in Year 11 Modern Languages (compared to four schools in 2021).

Meanwhile, in primary schools, languages are recovering, having almost collapsed following the Covid-19 pandemic. The report shows that 51 per cent of responding primary schools currently teach languages as part of the curriculum, with Spanish the main language taught at Key Stage 2, closely followed by French.

Of the schools not teaching languages, 20 have done so in the past five years. The main reasons for ceasing to teach primary languages were lack of funding, lack of expertise within the school and lack of external support and/or teaching resources.

When asked if languages should be statutory at Key Stage 3, 84 per cent of responding schools agreed, with Northern Ireland remaining  the only part of the UK and Ireland where pupils at primary school do not have an entitlement to learn a language as part of the curriculum.

Speaking about the research findings, Dr Collen said: “Following years of decline, language learning in Northern Ireland has stabilised. Whilst other UK jurisdictions and Ireland are investing in language learning, there is an urgent need to start similar endeavours in Northern Ireland to ensure we have a multilingual workforce ready to grow our economy. It would be timely to overhaul curriculum content and assessment of languages to better reflect the lives of young people today, and offer appropriate vocational qualifications in languages through progression pathways for all learners.”  

Also commenting on the research was Jonathan Stewart, Director, British Council Northern Ireland, he said: “This latest Language Trends research gives us cause for optimism. With positive signs of recovery in the primary school sector and a plateau in the decline of languages in post-primary schools, there is much to be encouraged by. 

“Our increasingly multicultural society makes it more important than ever to promote languages in our schools, equipping young people with the skills they need to thrive in future careers. Strong language skills enhance communication and interpersonal skills, expand career opportunities, and develop intercultural awareness.  

“The British Council remains dedicated to working with schools and educators to make language learning a priority and to help our young people succeed in an increasingly interconnected world.” 

The Language Trends Northern Ireland report will officially launch today (Tuesday, 13 June) at the MAC, Belfast. Dr Ian Collen will discuss the headline findings from the report – and there will also be the chance to hear from a panel chaired by Professor Janice Carruthers (Professor of French Linguistics, Dean of Research - Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Queen’s University Belfast & Principal Investigator, AHRC Priority Area Leadership Fellow Language Policy Project).

To read the full report and find out more about Language Trends Northern Ireland, visit:  https://nireland.britishcouncil.org/programmes/education/language-trends or follow #LanguageTrendsNI on Twitter.

The British Council is the UK’s leading cultural relations organisation, creating global opportunities in arts and culture, education and the English language. For more information on current opportunities in Northern Ireland, visit nireland.britishcouncil.org, or follow on Twitter: @BCouncil_NIFacebook or Instagram.

Notes to Editor

The full Language Trends Northern Ireland report 2023 can be downloaded here: https://nireland.britishcouncil.org/programmes/education/language-trends 

For media enquiries, please contact:  

Claire McAuley, Senior Media and Campaigns Manager, British Council: +44 (0)7542268752 E: Claire.McAuley@britishcouncil.org  

About the British Council

About the British Council 

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We support peace and prosperity by building connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and countries worldwide. We do this through our work in arts and culture, education and the English language. We work with people in over 200 countries and territories and are on the ground in more than 100 countries. In 2021-22 we reached 650 million people.