The notorious British inability to speak foreign languages was brought into sharp relief yesterday by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC). According to a poll they undertook at 8,000 firms, reported in the Daily Mail “very few [staff] can speak well enough to conduct deals in international markets”.
This is an appalling indictment of our educational priorities. It is all too easy to feel that since English has become the international language, it is not necessary to speak anything else. Such an attitude is short-sighted in the extreme. Obviously, when everyone else speaks English, the premium which comes as a mother-tongue speaker is diminished, and the lack of any other language becomes more apparent.
Of those who responded to the BCC poll, less than one per cent said they could speak Russian or Chinese to “a very good level at which they could make business deals”. The figure rose to just 1.2 per cent for Italian, two per cent for Spanish, 2.8 per cent for German and 4.2 per cent for French.
Given the truly dire state of affairs represented by these statistics, I would certainly support the British Chambers of Commerce when they say they want tax breaks for small firms offering foreign language training to workers.
Education Secretary Michael Gove would also do well to take on board what the BCC are saying, especially there call that every child should should learn a foreign language to GCSE.
I have, in fact, blogged on the British foreign language problem on more than one occasion. It is very apparent in the European Parliament where expert knowledge of at least one other, and often two or three, languages is the norm among MEPs from other member states. It is also to our shame that the only two European Commissioners who do not really have another language are those from the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
There are, of course, sound economic reasons for speaking a foreign language. The BCC are quite right when they say that having every child learn another language would help our ailing economy. It would also provide our students with far greater potential. English together with Spanish would open up South America while the possibilities of English with Chinese may well be where the future lies.