By Teresa Tinsley, Kathryn Board

20 November 2013 - 09:39

The UK’s reputation, despite an increasingly multilingual population, is stubbornly monolingual. Photo by Wendy Copley / Creative Commons
'The UK’s reputation, despite an increasingly multilingual population, is stubbornly monolingual.' Photo ©

Wendy Copley, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

When it comes to foreign languages, the UK’s reputation is not exactly the strongest. Researchers Teresa Tinsley and Kathryn Board give us a summary of ‘Languages for the Future’, a report – published yesterday – on which languages the UK needs to learn now.

While bilingualism is the norm in countries such as Switzerland, Malta or India, the UK’s reputation, despite an increasingly multilingual population, is stubbornly monolingual. Most recently, a European Survey on Language Competences – with a status equivalent to PISA or TIMSS – showed that only 9% of British teenagers had progressed beyond a basic level in the language they were learning, compared to an average of 42% across all countries in the survey.

Given that English is the first language of these islands, perhaps this is only to be expected. The incentive to step outside the comfort of the mother tongue is weak when you already speak the world’s lingua franca. But most Brits think that we should be doing a lot better. According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, nearly three quarters of us think that everyone in the EU should be able to speak another language in addition to their mother tongue, and 69% think that improving language skills should be a policy priority.

Which languages are most useful for native English speakers to learn?

Given that language learning involves an investment of time and resources by governments, educational establishments and learners, which languages are likely to provide the best return on this investment?

Traditionally, schools in this country have taught French, with German and increasingly Spanish as alternatives or second foreign languages. But with the recent plummeting of numbers studying French and German at GCSE and A-level, some commentators have asked whether we are teaching the wrong languages. Many schools across the UK are of course already teaching a wide variety of other languages too.

The British Council’s ‘Languages for the Future’ report set out to research which ten languages are likely to become increasingly important to the UK over the next 20 years. The aim was not to pit one language against another, but to use a balanced range of criteria, which took into account both economic and non-economic factors and reflected the motivations and practices of government, businesses and the public at large. The list includes those languages which are already widely taught – French, Spanish and German, as well as Italian, Russian and Japanese, which have a smaller presence in our education systems. But the list also includes Turkish, Portuguese and, perhaps the languages which present the biggest challenges for our education system: Arabic and Mandarin.

However, there is no simple answer as to which languages we should be learning. There are many reasons why we choose to learn a language, whether or not it features in a Top Ten list, including travel, employment, leisure, family connections and research. All language learning is valuable – stretching us intellectually, giving us an insight into other cultures and customs, broadening our view of the world, opening up new trade and business opportunities and enabling us to communicate with others.

Government, business, schools and parents need to make a concerted effort

Despite the fact that both government and businesses are keen to ensure economic stability and growth, they do not always recognise clearly enough the contribution that languages can make to achieving this. Although there have been a number of initiatives affecting language teaching, such as the English Baccalaureate or the introduction of languages as a compulsory subject for pupils in primary schools, these have not yet produced the kind of shift in attitudes that many of us working in the field of languages would like to see. Many businesses do recruit young managers with language skills to enable them to work effectively in an international economy, but it is often easier for them to find young Europeans who have English and another language in addition to their first language. UK attitudes to language learning mean that the vast majority of young people in the UK do not have the kind of language skills to compete with their European peers for these jobs, and so there is a danger that our young people will increasingly lose out on employment opportunities and ultimately that there will be a negative impact on the UK’s economy.

Parents and schools both have a large role to play in encouraging young people and pupils to learn languages. The difficulty is that schools have to consider many learning priorities at the same time and many parents feel negative about language learning because they had a poor experience of learning a language when they were at school themselves. In an ideal world, government, businesses, schools and parents would come together to  show young people how they can reap real practical benefits from learning a language, and to show how the country as a whole would benefit from being able to trade more effectively internationally.

Risks of monolingualism

There are clear economic risks if we are not able to change the UK’s attitude towards language learning. In a modern, globalised world with complex international business relationships, it is not good enough to only be able to communicate in English – we know that more than 70% of the world’s population does not speak English! Many of the most rapidly emerging economies of the world such as China, Brazil and countries in the Middle East have very large populations who do not speak English, but  are keen to trade internationally. It is obvious that they will look to trade with those who make an attempt to speak to them in their own language.

Being monolingual also carries cultural risks. Speaking another language provides a window to a different culture and customs and, in turn, provides us with a mirror to our own. Skill in another language helps us to communicate with other human beings, and increases our access to knowledge through research or literature published in a language other than our own.

Teresa Tinsley and Kathryn Board are the authors of the ‘Languages for the Future’ report, which was presented at one of our UK seminars yesterday. You can sign up to attend future seminars in the UK.

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