• Modern Foreign Languages

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The range of foreign languages that can be studied at GCSE and A Level is vast, but becomes enormous as undergraduate degree level is reached. Although once a compulsory subject up to GCSE level, modern foreign languages have dropped in popularity in recent years. There were 560,694 entries for GCSEs in Modern Languages in 2004, down from 567,128 in 2000. 68,390 people studied a foreign language at university in 2002/2003, with 58,905 more studying a language module as part of another degree. That said, it is becoming a popular option for primary schools to teach children a second language (most commonly French), either in normal lesson time or in extra curricular classes.


Choice of Languages Available

Popular Languages

A popular language is defined as one that is offered in pretty much every school that offers a foreign language. Most schools offer a choice of two out of the three popular languages, although many will offer a choice of all three at GCSE level. French, German and Spanish - the three in this category - are the most popular languages taken by British pupils.


French is the most common language for a pupil to learn at any level. In the year 2004, 320,818 pupils entered at GCSE level and 35,753 at A Level (20,580 at AS and 15,173 at A2). There are a number of reasons for it being popular; firstly, France is the most popular holiday destination for British tourists. As well as this, relations between France and Britain are always developing; although many French people speak English, there is always a demand for bilingual English and French speakers in industry. French is also one of the most popular languages for carrying on to degree level; in 2003, there were 21,255 students studying French is any combination (ie by itself, with another language or as part of another course). French is offered in most schools around the country; it is often chosen by pupils as the only language they carry on to GCSE study.


German is the second commonest MFL offered for school pupils, alongside French. Though it may be less popular than French, it still attracted 90,311 to take it at GCSE level in 2006. Part of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, it is spoken by approximately 110 million native speakers and 18 million non-native speakers in the world and is an important business language.


Spoken by around 400 million people, the distribution of the Spanish language is widely spread, ranging from Europe to South America. In 2007, 63978 students took GCSE Spanish, and the majority of students gained a grade C (20.7%).

Less Popular Languages

Less popular languages are ones that are taken by some pupils in the country but are not as widely offered. For example, many Muslim schools allow pupils to learn Urdu or Arabic, and many Jewish schools offer pupils the chance to learn Biblical Hebrew; these languages, however, are not common outside of religious schools. Welsh has been placed in this category as it is a common language in Wales, but outside of it, it is not commonly studied.


Biblical Hebrew







Welsh GCSE is compulsory for all students who attend a school in Wales. It is not compulsory outside of Wales, and is very rarely taken outside of Wales. It is also used as a language for education in Wales; according to the Welsh Language Board, over a quarter of children in Wales attend schools which teach in Welsh. Most Welsh universities will teach some courses in Welsh. In 2001, 4.5% of entrants in the GCSE in Welsh achieved an A*. There were 4501 candidates, following the trend of a slight dip in applicants since 1997. Information from the QCA

Rare Languages

The rare languages in this list are not often taught in schools. They are mainly taken by entrants whose first language is that of the exam, or who are bilingual. For example, a person raised to be bilingual in English and Bengali may sit a GCSE in Bengali for an extra qualification.









Overview of Language Courses at Different Levels

Key Stage 3

Overview : This is the basics of a language. For many people, it is the beginning of language learning.

Grammar : Simple grammar is learned. This includes present and past tenses, how to use nouns and adjectives in the language and the use of gender and articles.

Vocabulary : Basic vocabulary is learned; this ranges from words such as 'hello' and 'goodbye' to simple lists of essential vocabulary, including topics such as 'Food and Drink', 'Around Town' and 'Describing Words'.


Overview: GCSE is the intermediate standard in language learning. You are taught how to communicate at a very basic level, although there is less emphasis on reading and listening. Two controlled assessments for both speaking and writing are required, these make up 60% of the qualification. For more information there is the GCSE French article.

Grammar: Grammar is taught at GCSE; solid grammar, however, is not essential to achieve a good grade at GCSE. The main tenses taught are the Present, Simple Past, Preterite, Simple Future, Future and Conditional.

Vocabulary: Your vocabulary would be more advanced and related to certain topics. These include Home & Abroad, Entertainment, Daily Routines, Education, etc.

AS Level

Overview : AS Level languages are a lot more advanced than GCSE, with a huge step up between the two.

Grammar : It is expected that GCSE grammar will be able to be handled with reasonable fluency at AS Level. New tenses and moods are introduced, e.g. the subjunctive mood.

Vocabulary : A massive amount of vocabulary in the language is required for a good grade at AS Level. A student is required to learn detailed vocabulary around a certain topic, such as Education or Youth Concerns & Family Relations. A teacher of a language will often speak in only the target language during a lesson to expose the pupils continually to the language.

Cultural Knowledge : Students are often required to have a reasonable knowledge of the cultural differences between the UK and countries where the language is spoken. For example, students of French AS Level learn about the difference between the English and French school systems, and general information about marriage, divorce and cohabitation in France. Students of Spanish may learn about differences between the UK and South America.

Literature : The study of literature in a foreign language is rarely found at AS level, due to the fact that most students will not have acquired a wide enough vocabulary to be able to understand foreign works. It is more likely to be studied at A2 level (see below).

A2 Level




Literature : Basic works of literature are studied in the foreign language. The book is read in class with a teacher, so as to help students translate or understand any complex words or idioms. A piece of coursework may be written around the novel (see coursework). Examples of the types of literature studied include 'L'Etranger' by Albert Camus, 'Ich fühl mich so fifty-fifty' by Karin König, and 'Réquiem por un campesino español' by Ramón Sender.


There are 3 main levels of language - A, B and ab intio

A1 Literature course taken by fluent speakers - can be as second language choice and if taken with an other A1 language and therefore can get the bilingual diploma

A2 - Text and performance Students study less pieces of literature, but also includes language study. Still need to have a high standard of the language

B Taken as a second language for people with more than 2 years experience, learn to discuss and debate issues. A little literature is studied at a lower level than A1 and A2

Ab intio Is taken when the person has no knowledge of the language and/or does not live in a country were the language is spoken Also students with learning diffulties can take an ab intio language they have taken before. (I have Dsylexia and was allowed to take French ab, even having studied it earlier.

University Level

Overview : The final stage of learning a language is to study it at degree level. The aim of a degree is to make you fluent in a language, something which is highlighted by the fact that practically all Foreign Languages degrees last four years, the third being spent in a foreign country where the language is spoken.

Grammar : Although you will have learnt the majority of the grammar of a language by the time you reach university, technical and other complex grammar points will be studied.

Vocabulary : Complex and technical vocabulary (such as medical or science vocab) is learnt. It is expected that a student is able to hold a fluent conversation with a native speaker of the language, using both formal and colloquial language. It is also expected that a student can make use of idioms and local colloquial phrases in the language.

Literature : Most foreign language courses at university level involve the study of literature in the native language. The study of literature is pretty much standard for most university courses, although there are some where it is not compulsory. The study of literature is the same as would be found in an English Literature degree; it is, however, in a different language.

Translation/Interpretation : Some language courses at university offer modules on translation or interpreting for students that want to become involved in those careers after graduation. These are tested in exams which involve a mock translation between two examiners.

Year Abroad : As stated earlier, 99.9% of all language courses at degree level will involve a year abroad. In some cases, students will go to a university in a country where their target language is spoken and study a course there. However, most students will often take a job such as a Teaching Assistant in English for the year, to provide them with funds for the year and to give them experience of the working world. The idea of a year abroad is to immerse the candidate in the real world of that language, where it is spoken 24/7 and not just in a classroom, as well as allowing them to interact with real native speakers of the language.


At GCSE, the grade range that can be awarded for a foreign language ranges from A*-G, with a U being an ungraded paper. At A Level, the grades are A-E, with a U being a fail. At degree level, candidates can be awarded a First-class Honours, Upper Second-class Honours, Lower Second-class Honours, Third-class Honours, Ordinary degree or fail.

What You Need To Do To Get A Certain Grade

Taken from the QCA website. The following information is relevant to all exam boards.


AS Level

A2 Level

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