Figures from the UK department for education (DfE) show a drastic fall in the number of UK students sitting GCSEs (the national exam taken in the UK at age of 16) in South Asian languages over the past seven years. There were no students sitting Hindi GCSE in 2022, 2021, 2020 and 2019 whereas 19 students had sat Hindi GCSE in 2015. Some point to a lack of qualified and trained teachers.
Labour Harrow West MP Gareth Thomas is calling for more government investment in key South Asian Languages. He wants to see dedicated funding and specialist training of teachers as well as more support for community schooling.
“The teaching of South Asian languages is critical to Britain’s economic future as well as an opportunity for academic excellence among young people in our country,” he said. “The problems concerning the ongoing political tensions with Russia and China further highlight the need to turbocharge trade with South Asia. Mandarin and Latin have recently received special pots of funding to invest in new teaching. Similar investment and commitment is needed to kickstart a new generation of young people able to communicate with the peoples of South Asia in their own languages to boost trade, open up business opportunities and assist in improving our collective security.”
The number of students sitting Bengali GCSE has fallen from 890 in 2015 to 425 students in 2022 (a drop of 52%); Gujarati has fallen from 532 students in 2015 to 197 in 2022 (a drop of 63%); Urdu has fallen from 4,173 students in 2015 to 3,284 students in 2022 (a drop of 21%) and Persian has fallen from 395 to 319 (a drop of 19%.). The language to have declined the least is Punjabi, which has fallen from 805 to 714 (an 11% drop).
According to Dr Aruna Ajitsaria, consultant to Cambridge International Examinations, the standard Hindi GCSE exam was withdrawn as the education authority thought there were not enough entries so not worth their while to keep it open.
“Bengali and Gujarati are still taught in mainstream schools in places like Birmingham and Leicester where there is demand, but Hindi is not taught in any schools in the UK,” Ajitsaria said. “It is only taught in a few places like the Bhavan, temples and privately from home. It is not included in the national curriculum. It is still possible to take Hindi IGCSE but you have to take private tuition and prepare yourself and your school has to sponsor you. It is quite difficult to get any school to agree to do it. The Hindi community is not trying to get it recognised or to demand why it is not there. Other communities are more motivated about their languages.”
Private Hindi teacher Indu Barot said she has been trying to get a job as a Hindi school teacher in Britain for 10 years. “I applied to lots of schools and they all said there was no demand. There is no one encouraging Hindi to be taught and yet we are about to have a UK-India trade deal which will lead to much business coming here,” she said. “It is not just the language that gets taught — it is Indian culture and festivals.” She added another problem was a dearth of Hindi textbooks and teaching materials in Britain.
Naresh Sharma, senior Lecturer in Hindi and Urdu at SOAS, said: “The decline in language learning in general in UK schools has had a knock-on effect on the numbers of students taking languages at university. At SOAS we have seen a clear decline in the interest in South Asian languages, with falling enrolments, and sadly some languages no longer even being taught. Luckily, we’re still able to offer languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Sanskrit, Prakrit (which runs due to private funding) and occasionally Punjabi. We are now teaching certain languages online via distance learning with the hope of attracting more students. But the issue is, how do we ensure that our South Asian languages continue to be taught in the long term?”
A DfE spokesperson said it was “considering ways in which” it could support increasing teaching quality and take-up in “home, heritage, and community languages”.