The government has confirmed the controversial changes to MFL GCSEs in schools will go ahead in 2024, despite opposition from language associations and teaching unions.

The decision by the Department for Education (DfE) will allow exam boards to select topics and themes to inform the selection of key vocabulary, rather than being prescribed in the subject content.

In the new curriculum, pupils will be assessed on the basis of memorising lists of 1,700 “word families” to pass GCSEs in Spanish, French or German.

The initial proposals, published in a consultation last year, were criticised for stripping out cultural topics from the proposed course content and replaced with lists of words to be memorised.

The Association for Language Learning said it was “very disappointed” that the DfE had not taken up an invitation to work collaboratively with subject associations, exam boards and headteachers on a further review of GCSE content and development.

Robin Walker, the schools minister for England, said studying languages was “hugely important” for the global economy: “That’s why we want more young people to take up modern language GCSEs, and these evidence-based changes aim to do just that – making these qualifications more well-rounded and accessible, and helping more young people to enjoy learning languages.”

But Katrin Kohl, professor of German at the University of Oxford, said: “There’s no pedagogic precedent for using vocabulary frequency as the key driver for subject content, and as has been widely emphasised, the approach isn’t tested at GCSE level.