Lack of Foreign Languages is bad for young Britons

Labour Party

Both the Guardian and the Daily Mail today feature articles about the parlous state of modern language teaching in British schools.

Reading these two pieces you could be forgiven for not knowing that the EU requires all member states to teach two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue.

There are good reasons for this.  Knowing another language allows you to work in other countries.  If any of our youngsters wish to work abroad outside the English speaking world, they would obviously have to know the language of their preferred destination.  Because so many of our children can’t do this, they potentially lose out.

The main problem is, of course, that English is such a universal tongue.  We can go to the USA, Canada, Australasia, most of the Indian sub-continent and a large part of Africa and speak our native language.  But we can’t hack it in Germany, France and the French speaking countries, Spain and South America, to name but a few.  However, if we upped our game to the required two foreign languages we could go to vastly more places to work, thereby expanding opportunities for our young people.  French and Spanish, for example, in addition to English, would enable Brits to live and work in a significant proportion of Europe, Africa and Asia as well as South America.

Languages have the ability to pay, and it really is about time the UK learnt that.  These two articles today also stress how those young people who are proficient in another language get better jobs at home.  Many employers ask for this qualification for their more senior and fast track jobs.

There is also a cultural dimension.  Languages are fun and teach you about other ways of life, other preoccupations and other views of the world.

Please let’s give our teenagers and young people a chance.  Foreign languages are too important to be consigned to the twilight zone.  They must be a full and important part of the mainstream curriculum.

3 thoughts on “Lack of Foreign Languages is bad for young Britons

  1. Mary, I may not agree with you politically on most things – but on this you are absolutely spot on! Language teaching is vital and appallingly neglected in British schools.

  2. I agree. The west has lost a lot for abandoning the classics and the civic humanism they conveyed–I regret my Latin, which is bad because I had to teach myself. Schools should train people’s minds. Perhaps loads more catholic schools would help.

    I also think that people should still be made to speak another European language to a university entrance standard, which is what we ask, after all, of those whose first language is not English, and that Gaelic should be allowed to regenerate in these islands; however, I think it best if the official language for everyone is english, taught properly and with grammar. That’s something else that people have lost.

    People should be encouraged to buy themselves courses in university outreach departments, or on the OU, in an Asian language. Universities would be able to do that if they were given endowments and floated away to take advantage of whatever opportunity they could to help people improve themselves whilst taking their cash honestly. Who knows, maybe even some of those makework ‘lecturers’ could take the classes after appropriate training.

    What I wouldn’t want is the government involved. Really, though, I find myself wondering why people know next to nothing about Europe, good or bad, bar what they are fed (and this isn’t true, in my experience of many skeptics, before you say it), whereas every hoary old myth and misconception about the the United States trips off their tongue.

    I love the US, but, really, they are very far away and they have their own interests, which from time to time coincide with those of humanity but which often are sui generis.

    You’re into bandwidth issues and so forth. Is it possible to extend the BBC’s foreign language services educationally to British people, on a clear channel or via the internet?

    One final point–sorry for the long post. I know quite a few civil servants (and for any snoops reading that doesn’t mean the ones who were my students at Oxford). Why was it that there were almost no translators in the British box at the last G-20, but the other governments brought theirs in? Did we only negotiate with them when they had what the Daily Mail would no doubt think of as the good sense to speak English? You are my appointed European Representative Mary! Look into it.

  3. Mary, I fully agree with your concern about lack of foreign languages among young (and old) Britons.

    This is actually a serious challenge both for social and linguitistic reasons. Social because so many other people speak English, and linguistic because we don’t have the complexities such as gender and case that many other languages have.

    Also I believe pronunciation has been very poorly taught.

    I strongly believe that there should be more teaching of Spanish. In fact, despite them often using one word where we use three, it is a much easier language than French. Educated people who learn French don’t realise how difficult French is because they are often taught very superficially (eg Edward Heath!)

    I also think it’s a bad thing that languages are often taught only to ‘grammar school’ ability pupils, and therefore I very much welcome the teaching of languages in primary schools.

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