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Learning the language of intelligence

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The decline in young people studying languages at university could have serious implications for GCHQ, and its ability to protect the UK from international threats. The organisation’s language analysts are striving to combat this by inspiring school pupils to learn some of the most needed languages.

Photograph of school pupils holding a trophy.
The winners of the 2014 GCHQ-ALL Schools Year 9 Language Challenge, Sir Thomas Rich’s School, Gloucester, with representatives from the ALL West of England branch. © Crown Copyright

There is a hubbub of excited chatter in the Y9 language classroom as the pupils await the arrival of a special guest speaker - after all, it’s not every day a British Intelligence officer visits your school!   And yet, this is exactly what the Language Analysts from Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have been doing over the past 8 years, visiting secondary schools up and down the country, talking to pupils about the value of learning a foreign language and explaining how vital languages are to GCHQ’s work.

GCHQ is one of the UK’s three intelligence agencies, working closely with MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).  The UK faces a range of established and emerging threats that challenge our national security.  These include cyber attacks, international and domestic terrorism, organised crime, and the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

GCHQ specialises in gathering and analysing digital and electronic signals from all corners of the world, many of which are in foreign languages.   It is the job of GCHQ’s Language Analysts to use their expert linguistic and cultural knowledge to translate and analyse these communications to produce intelligence reports for Whitehall customers.  The content of these reports can influence high-level decision-making and make a real-world impact on the security of the UK, such as helping to neutralise a terrorist threat or prevent a shipment of Class A drugs from reaching the streets. Language skills therefore underpin the work of the organisation.

Language education in crisis

But the number of students taking a language at GCSE has declined dramatically since 2004, when languages became optional rather than mandatory. There has been an inevitable  consequent fall in numbers studying languages at A-level and at university.  According to a British Academy report published in 2013, 44 universities have closed their language degrees since 2000.  This is not good news for British business, which desperately needs more speakers of foreign languages to compete in global markets, and it is not good news for GCHQ, which finds it increasingly difficult to recruit the high-calibre linguists it needs to carry out its vital intelligence work.

Over the past year GCHQ has run recruitment campaigns for Language Analysts in Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Russian, Korean and African languages – and is still recruiting.  The recruitment tests are tough as the standard required is high.  But, once they join the Department, all Language Analysts benefit from GCHQ’s strong internal continuing professional development programme, which recognises the critical value of languages to the work of the organisation.  All new Language Analysts benefit from mentoring and coaching from a senior linguist from Day 1, and have opportunities for language enhancement and retraining programmes.

The GCHQ Language Outreach Programme

GCHQ has been running its Schools Language Outreach programme since 2006, initially visiting secondary schools close to its Gloucestershire base, but now operating across the country.  The outreach visits usually start with talks to Year 9 students who are considering their GCSE choices, but A-Level students are also offered “taster classes” in languages like Chinese, Arabic, Persian or Russian , to inspire them to apply for a more unusual language at university.  All of these languages can be studied ab initio at university with no previous knowledge required.”

The top secret nature of GCHQ’s work means, that GCHQ staff are not usually able to talk about what they do.  Those Language Analysts who take part in the Language Outreach programme therefore enjoy getting out into the community to engage with the young people they meet in schools, to share with them their love of languages and hopefully inspire them to continue their language studies.   They also gain great satisfaction from opening students’ eyes to the huge range of exciting language opportunities available beyond French, German or Spanish usually taught in schools.  GCHQ Language Analysts are proud to represent GCHQ and welcome the opportunity to raise awareness of the important work done by the Department.

GCHQ-ALL Schools Language Challenge

In 2014, GCHQ teamed up with the West of England branch of the Association for Language Learning (ALL), the professional body for language teachers, to run a language competition for Year 9 pupils – the GCHQ-ALL Schools Language Challenge.  Pupils worked in small teams to research a town, region or country where the language they were studying is spoken, and then to create and deliver a PowerPoint presentation to showcase their findings – entirely in the foreign language.  The best 10 entries were invited to GCHQ for a Finals Day, where the pupils delivered their presentations live to the joint GCHQ-ALL judging panel. Finalists, learnt more about the vital importance of languages to GCHQ’s mission and attended language “tasters” in Arabic, Chinese, Persian, Russian, Somali and Urdu.   “There was a real buzz around Finals Day,” says the Outreach Coordinator, “and such enthusiasm from the young people attending.”

Teachers were effusive in their praise for the event, welcoming the “real-life context it gave for using language skills”.  They reported improvements in students' language skills, especially improved pronunciation, and said the Challenge stretched the students’ ability to speak spontaneously, undertake research and present to an audience. It also fostered greater interest in the country chosen and gave students “a chance to see how exciting speaking a language can be”.   The pupils attending the Final were equally enthusiastic:

“Languages are fun.  I want to learn more.”


“The experience has really opened my eyes to how influential languages are.”


“It’s made me reconsider my GCSE options.”


“It has made me think about taking a language at A-level.”

The Threlford Memorial Award

 In November 2014, the GCHQ Language Outreach team were awarded the prestigious Threlford Memorial Cup by the Chartered Institute of Linguists Educational Trust.  The trophy recognises an organisation, individual or project which has made a significant contribution towards fostering the study of language and was presented to the GCHQ Team by the Institute’s patron, HRH Prince Michael of Kent, at the Institute’s annual awards ceremony in November at the Barbican Centre in London.

HRH Prince Michael of Kent presents the Threlford Memorial Cup to GCHQ’s Language Outreach Coordinator.
HRH Prince Michael of Kent presents the Threlford
Memorial Cup to GCHQ’s Language Outreach Coordinator.
© Chris Christodoulou

Schools’ feedback

Evaluations carried out before and after GCHQ visits invariably indicate an increase in the number of students considering studying at least one language at GCSE (on one occasion  an increment of 25%), at A-level or at university and, where language tasters have been given, a raised level of interest in considering a degree in a non-Western European language.

Feedback from pupils attending GCHQ language outreach events speaks for itself:

"At the beginning of the day I wasn’t sure if I was going to do languages as a GCSE, but now I think I will.”


“I hadn’t considered non-European languages until today.”


“It makes me want to learn Chinese and Russian.”


“A fun enjoyable and informative day.”


“Subsequently, 77% of the cohort opted to take languages at GCSE, of which 40% are dual linguists.” – Head of Modern Foreign Languages.  Twyford School, Ealing


“20% increase in those considering taking a language at GCSE as a result of the event.”  Cheltenham Independent State Schools Partnership Language Day

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