‘But everyone speaks English anyway?’ is a common attitude in the UK nowadays, which isn’t surprising in a country that is notorious for struggling with learning new languages. However, with 70% of the world’s population unable to speak English, it seems that the UK could potentially miss out on important opportunities by not learning any foreign languages.
‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart.’ – Nelson Mandela
Foreign Language Learning in the UK: The Facts and Figures
The estimated percentage of British people who can hold a conversation in a foreign language is 25%, compared to 38% of the EU population (non-British or Irish) who can do so in English. As far back as 1974, the UK and Ireland were behind in language learning, as all EU member states except those two had made learning a foreign language compulsory by then.
By 1998, the UK had followed suit with almost all pupils studying at least one foreign language at GCSE Level, but compulsory foreign language learning was scrapped under the Blair government. Following this, a language trends survey concluded that the number of GCSE students taking a language had fallen from 78% to 49% between 2001 and 2015.
Furthermore, a European Survey on European Languages concluded that only 9% of British teenagers had progressed beyond a basic level in a language that they were learning, comparing to 42% across other countries.
Foreign Language Learning in the UK: My Experience with the Process
Here in Wales, where I went to school, 48% fewer students are studying foreign language now, compared to 15 years ago. 61% of Welsh schools have fewer than five foreign language pupils at A-level and in 64% of Welsh schools’ modern foreign language departments have just one or two full-time teachers with one-third dependant on non-British EU nationals as staff.
The school I attended was a bilingual school, where Welsh was the medium of all my classes, except English lessons of course. Contrary to what some might say, I don’t believe this held me back in the slightest. I consider it an advantage, especially when trying my hand at other languages. It was one of the reasons I chose French as a part of my degree, a language that I studied for seven years at school.
After a further two years studying it at university, I felt as though I hadn’t made much progress. This all changed during my third year at University, which I spent in Toulouse on Erasmus. After these eight months, I now consider myself a French speaker. The experience taught me about the importance of immersion when learning a language. Most of my progress came whilst I was totally immersed in French. But how then, could the Erasmus students I met from Scandinavia and Germany, speak such good English, as well as blow me away with how much better their French was than mine?
In Wales, a third language is taught to students once they start secondary schools. Some schools in England start teaching foreign languages at around seven years of age, but consistency here is a grey area. What is consistent however is how EU nations have lowered the age that children start learning foreign languages, some lowering to as young as three. In Sweden, English is a core subject along with Maths and Swedish. Seeing as you have a sufficient number of core lessons a week, Swedish students tend to be much more immersed in English than British students are in foreign languages.
How Costly is the Lack of Foreign Language Proficiency to the UK and What Does it Mean for UK Businesses?
The disadvantages extend to more than the locals laughing behind our backs whenever we go on holiday and mutter ‘mercy bowcoop’ when the waiter brings our food at a Parisian restaurant.
It is estimated that the lack of foreign language skills costs the UK 3.5% of its yearly GDP, a whopping £48bn a year. The British Council drew up a report named ‘languages of the future’. The report concluded that of the 29 high-growth markets included in the report, the majority had low or very low level of English proficiency, meaning that deals with countries such as China and Brazil who are keen to trade internationally are being squandered due to language barriers, a trend that can’t afford to continue in post-Brexit Britain.
What Can be Done Today and in the Future to Tackle the Issue?
The government have already introduced the English Baccalaureate scheme in English schools, which measures the achievement of pupils that have GCSE qualifications in four subjects, plus a foreign language. The goal is to have 90% of students achieving this by 2025, but it’s estimated that the government need 3,500 more teachers if this is to be achievable.
Earlier introduction of foreign language learning has proved effective across Europe. Children are said to be like sponges, they take on information easier, making it the easiest stage to learning languages. Some argue that seven years of age is even too late since it misses a key period in a child’s learning process, and that language education should be introduced from five or even three.
A restructuring of the curriculum is also debated, and many would like to see a foreign language introduced as a core subject, although compromises may have to be made to achieve this. The bottom line is, that young people need more of a platform to learn foreign languages – not just one or two one-hour sessions per week.
Written by Steffan Howells.
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