The language of languages
: A qualitative study into the decline of Modern Languages at A Level in Northern Ireland

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Education


This dissertation reviews academic, scholarly and government reports into the decline in presentations since 2002 for GCSE and A level Modern Languages and presents research into the reasons cited by teachers and young people in Northern Ireland for this decline, specifically at A level.

The purpose of the review is to situate Northern Ireland within the wider context of the United Kingdom, and to explore the commonalities and differences in reasons for the decline in language learning in different parts of the country. The review gives rise to research questions which allow for a deeper exploration of language learning in Northern Ireland through empirical research.

The mainly qualitative study was conducted in four strands: (i) a survey of teachers of A level languages in Northern Ireland, (ii) a focus group with seven teachers who held promoted posts of Head of Modern Languages or Head of Subject in schools in Northern Ireland, (iii) semi-structured interviews with eight recent school leavers, all of whom were capable of doing a language for A level, but chose not to, and (iv) a narrative description of the 2017-2018 School Census with particular reference to languages at A level. The data collected information about teachers’ and pupils’ experiences of language learning. Qualitative data are analysed using thematic analysis.

The findings illustrate that reasons for the decline in presentations at A level resonate with those in other UK nations, but also there are some reasons specific to Northern Ireland. The two main reasons for decline are the grading of external examinations and the content of specifications for external examination. Specific to Northern Ireland, there are structural barriers within the school estate, there is a clear social class divide between selective and non-selective schools, and recent initiatives such as the Entitlement Framework could be a barrier as opposed to a facilitator of uptake.

The study recommends inter alia that CCEA reviews the grading of and the content of the specifications for GCSE and A level qualifications in French, German, Irish and Spanish with immediate effect.
Date of AwardJul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorTony Gallagher (Supervisor) & Aisling O'Boyle (Supervisor)


  • Modern Languages
  • A Level
  • language learning

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