The seven big language learning issues facing the UK
Despite the UK’s pivotal role on the global stage and its melting pot of cultures, the country remains largely a nation of monoglots. But what is holding back Brits from learning a foreign language?
The Guardian and the British Academy launched the Case for Language Learning to investigate the reasons behind the UK’s shortage of foreign language skills, discussing the importance and value of learning a foreign tongue. The Living Languages report highlights many of the debates and thinking generated by the two-year project, and brings together some of the dominant themes.
Here are seven of the key findings:
1. Lack of language skills is bad for the economy
Britain’s economy is being seriously harmed because of a shortage of foreign language skills. In fact, according to the government’s own statistics, it costs the country 3.5% of GDP every year – that’s £48bn. James Foreman-Peck, professor of economics at Cardiff Business School described this as a “tax on growth”, which sees the potential of small to medium-size exporters being hampered. This happens not just because they don’t have the cash to employ lots of linguists like global companies do, but also because – without language skills – they are deterred from trading internationally.
One business leader, Nick Brown, explained: “English is fine if you want to buy things, but it’s not the right language to use for people who want to sell things.”
2. Young people are put off language learning
Research by the Guardian and British Academy found that young people are put off learning languages because they think it is too difficult. And that’s despite the fact most of them acknowledge that languages can be good for careers, understanding cultures and meeting new people.
The number of students taking A-levels in foreign languages has been in steady decline in England for 10 years, and the number of undergraduates accepted for a degree in a modern language fell to its lowest level in a decade in 2012-13.
It’s not all bad news though, 70% said they would be interested in learning a language in the future, and one in five already speak another language at home with their family. The number taking language GCSEs has also begun to recover.
3. Languages are about more than boosting your CV
The Case for Language Learning heard from dozens of readers and experts who cited a range of problems with the way languages are approached in schools. One of the most striking themes was the importance of recognising that languages must be about more than providing a career boost. After all, Jack Porteous, of UK Trade and Investment, said that language skills are “rarely the main requirement” for a job – there’s usually more to it. So it’s important to remember the other aspects of language learning as well.
Professor Katrin Kohl of the University of Oxford said: “Learning a language is not only tough but may be dull unless it involves intellectual challenges, cultural attractions and communicative rewards.”
4. Minority languages have a complex relationship with communities
Do multiple foreign languages bind communities or divide them? It seems the jury is still out. One reader said: “I am speaking as [a member of] a non-white minority, born in this country. Speaking 300 languages in the country is not a good thing. It creates division and hostility.”
However, Jocelyn Wyburd, chair of the University Council of Modern Languages, said: “If we can harness the multilingualism in our presence … that could be massively beneficial in schools and benefit cross-cultural communication.” Despite this, a Guardian/ICM poll suggests minority languages are not being fully embraced, with only around a third of people whose native language isn’t English take a qualification in their mother tongue.
5. 6,000 languages are facing extinction
Across the globe, minority languages are facing extinction in the face of globalisation. According to Unesco, half the world’s 6,000 languages face being wiped out by the end of the century, including 150 from Europe.
The endangered languages include Quechua, which is spoken, primarily in the Andes in Colombia to Chile. Prof Rosaleen Howard, of Newcastle University explained: “When people move from rural areas to the cities they need Spanish in order to get jobs and education; there is no alternative. The people who push for language revitalisation tend to be the more educated people who are bilingual.”
6. Technology is a good match for languages
Technology is quickly becoming an important tool, not only to help facilitate language learning, but also to stoke interest and engagement. From blogging to video conferences and a range of apps, technology offers a fresh approach to the way languages are taught.
Consultant and former language teacher Joe Dale explained how one social media group had become an invaluable test-bed for ideas on using new technologies. He said: “Over time, the group has developed a strong ethos of sharing innovative classroom practice, encouraging each other to experiment and feed back their findings for further discussion and reflection.”
7. Learning languages is an enriching experience
Above all else, learning a language is something that can open your mind and allow you to see the world in new and exciting ways. One blogger who suffers from depression wrote: “Languages provide a window on to a wider world … allowing me to connect with people and by giving me a route back to the things I feel are important.”
Indeed, the rich tapestry of languages is intertwined with our own identity and the fabric of society. Ellie Mae O’Hagan suggests: “Perhaps the fact that languages are embodied with so much culture and history is why it feels so poignant to forget them, and so painful.”
Flix Translations, translation agency and linguistic services provider.