Good intentions alone will not help us introduce languages such as Chinese and Arabic into the curriculum. If we want to thrive in a global society, we need to take firm action now, says the British Council's Vicky Gough.
When Nelson Mandela passed away at the end of last year, it was an opportunity to reflect on his many words of wisdom over the years. For me, one of his quotes hits home especially:
'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.'
These two sentences are a powerful reminder that, for all the advantages that being an English-speaking nation brings us, we can never rely on English alone. If we want to build the kind of trust with people from other countries that underpins any kind of relationship, we need to be talking to hearts, not heads.
That is why being able to speak a foreign language is a vital skill for the future of our country and, most importantly, our children – and why they deserve to be held in the same regard as STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in our curriculum.
We recently published our Languages for the Future report, which identified Spanish, Arabic, French, Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese as the languages most vital for the UK’s competitiveness and global standing over the next 20 years.
That’s not to say that these are the only languages worth learning – but, when you consider our research’s finding that the percentage of UK adults who can speak each of these is in single figures for everything apart from French (15%), it pays to have some focus.
The move to make a foreign language compulsory at Key Stage 2 in England from September is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but there are unresolved issues about resourcing, continuing professional development, continuity and progression from primary to secondary, as well as time for languages within the curriculum.
We know from international research that England provides one the lowest amounts of teaching time to modern languages in primary and secondary schools of all of the OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and our experience teaching English overseas tells us that, in order to make substantial progress in a language, significant time investment must be made.
Good intentions alone will not help us to introduce languages such as Chinese or Arabic into the curriculum, because we have a real lack of people qualified to teach them. Indeed, the supply of newly qualified teachers in even the most traditionally popular languages such as French is dwindling, as a result of fewer and fewer young people studying them to degree level. So we need to look at ways to encourage more native speakers in these and other languages to teach.
And perhaps there is an even bigger hurdle that we need to tackle: the alarmingly prevalent notion that foreign languages are just a ‘nice to have’, because everyone speaks English anyway. Quite simply, they don’t. Only a quarter of the world’s population speaks English and, while that’s clearly still a lot of people, it still leaves three quarters with whom we’re – quite literally – lost for words.