Lead data journalist

If people were 16 today, many more would choose to learn a computer programming language over a foreign one

The number of pupils now studying a foreign language at A level has been in freefall for years, and has this year reached a record low. Meanwhile, the UK government has been trying to boost the number of pupils studying a different type of language – computer programming language.

Computing now sits alongside foreign languages as a compulsory subject at Key Stages 3 and 4, meaning that pupils must learn these subjects up to and including GCSE level. After that, however, pupils are free to study what they want at A level.

We wanted to see which of the two types of languages people would prefer to study if they were 16 again (the age where GCSE students will choose what A levels to study). Our survey found that nearly half of all people opted for the computer option (48%), beating foreign languages by a margin of ten points. A further 14% don’t know which they would choose.

The question is highly divisive across a number of different demographic groups, however. Men, for instance, would by far prefer to learn to code with 56% choosing a computer programming language against 32% for a foreign language. Women are far more evenly split, with a slight preference in favour of foreign (43%) over computer languages (41%).

Poorer people are far less likely to see utility in learning a foreign language. Whilst people in ABC1 and C2DE social classes both opted to study computer programming by a similar amount (47% and 49% respectively), just 32% of poorer people said they would study a foreign language compared to 42% of richer people.

Intriguingly, SNP voters are the only voter group who would prefer to study a foreign language, and at 59% would do so overwhelmingly. This is not a factor of being Scottish – Scottish people in general are about as likely to choose to study a foreign language as the British average. Perhaps predictably, UKIP voters by contrast are far less likely to want to study a foreign language (28%).

Learning a programming language is the strong preference of all age groups up to the age of 59, with each age group preferring coding over modern languages by a margin of at least 13 percentage points. Older people however, slightly prefer to study a foreign language by a single point (43% vs 42%).

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