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Why we shouldn't give up on foreign languages

28th May 2013

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In 2004 we, along with Ireland, became the only country in the EU where learning a foreign language is not compulsory after the age of 14. At the same time the rest of Europe was increasing the extent to which students were obliged to study languages.

Should we be worried that we are swimming against the tide?

“It is SO STUPID!” My Dutch housemate tells me, “Most people think it is a bit dumb because we can’t imagine only speaking one language.”

And she’s right. We may have dismissed foreign language learning as unnecessary but the result of our poor language skills is worse than coming across as an ignorant Brit on holiday who can barely utter the word “gracias.”

Since 2004 language up take at GCSE and A-level has been in steady decline. In 2001 eight out of ten students took a language at GCSE but by 2010 just 40 % chose to take a language. In February 2013 the department of education published a report entitled “European Survey on Language Competences: Language Proficiency in England.” It will come as no surprise that we are bottom of the class.

But it doesn’t seem to be worrying us too much. We have always held our hands up and admitted that we are no good at language learning, as if being British makes you somehow inherently incapable of learning a language. But it’s time we stopped passively accepting our lack of language skills with a jolly “oh aren’t we hopeless” shrug of the shoulders.

In January of last year David Thomas wrote in the Daily Mail: “Learning foreign languages is a pleasant form of intellectual self-improvement: a genteel indulgence like learning to embroider or play the violin.” Well so, you could argue, is becoming widely read, or having a great knowledge of art, but I don’t see the British government removing English from the core curriculum anytime soon.

It may be true that English is widely spoken, but this does not mean that we can completely give up on foreign languages. Our inability to speak other languages damages our economy and limits our understanding of our European neighbours.

Lila Djait, a student of International Relations at the University of Ghent in Belgium, shares her view on the British reluctance to learn foreign languages: “I think that it’s kind of lazy, also egocentric, as if your language is the only one in the world. It definitely impacts on the kind of relationship the UK has with the rest of Europe.”

Our lack of language skills is why we export disproportionately to other English speaking countries and why employers in the UK itself are struggling to fill job vacancies which require foreign language skills. We need to get rid of this idea that learning a foreign language has become redundant if we are to continue to compete at an international level.

For those who do chose to take on a language, it has to be asked how effectively they are being taught and assessed. The First European Survey on Language Competences (ESLC) showed that just 9% of students aged 14-15 reached the level of “an independent language user who can deal with straightforward, familiar matters.”

Diego Ernandes, a student of languages at the New University of Lisbon, tells me: “In my English classes at school we couldn't speak in Portuguese. Our teacher wouldn’t answer our questions until we asked in English.”

Ask any student currently in state education and they will tell you that this is not the case in the UK.  We are failing to inspire enough students to study a language and are not offering those who do effective teaching.

Our great language deficit has the potential to harm the UK’s cultural, social and economic well-being. We are being blind-sided by the fact that English is so widely spoken, failing to appreciate how truly valuable learning another language can be. In the words of the translator Michael Hofmann: “If you don't have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases, all your life. It's harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself, in just one language. It's harder to play.”

It seems we could all do with upping our game.

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