Fewer students in Flanders studying languages


A surge in the decrease of pupils in Flanders taking German at school is indicative of a larger, concerning trend, according to VUB

‘Missed opportunity’

The number of pupils in secondary education choosing to study German has reached an all-time low, according to annual statistics released by the Flemish education department.

VUB university in Brussels further announced that the number of university students studying languages in general has fallen over the last decade. The university is concerned about the figures because of the role language plays in a globalised economy.

In Flanders, pupils are required to take two years of French in primary school. Other languages in primary and secondary education are optional.

In the 2016-17 academic year, the number of pupils in secondary education following German dipped below 70,000 for the first time. It is a 16% decrease from 15 years ago.

Dutch’s closest family

“German is the closest language to Dutch,” says VUB German professor Katja Lochtman. “Research shows that languages are most easily learned when there are a lot of similarities between the foreign language and your native one. So a fall in the number of students studying German is a real missed opportunity for language education.”

According to VUB’s language department, it’s a trend that can be seen across languages in both secondary and higher education. In the last academic year there were 1,000 fewer university students enrolled in Language and Literature arts than five years ago.

“Even in English,” says VUB English professor Alex Housen, “which you would think would be a popular language to learn, there are fewer students than 10 years ago.”

Knowledge of languages other than English is clearly necessary in order to reach full potential economically

- Professor Alex Housen

The experts fear that the trend will lead to a vicious circle as fewer qualified language teachers will be graduating from university. That will lead to fewer primary and secondary schools offering the languages or less-qualified teachers providing them. Then secondary students won’t be fully prepared to enter the studies at university.

Housen has looked into a number of international studies regarding hiring prospects and salaries. In the US, workers who speak an additional language to English earn an average $7,000 more a  year than peers in their sector.

In Sweden, the ability to operate in multiple languages counts for 10% of a company’s worth, and in the UK 3.5% of GDP is lost every year due to workers’ lack of knowledge of languages other than English.