I have blogged before about the importance of language learning, particularly in the UK where enthusiam for language subjects such as French and Spanish is in rapid decline. While English remains the international language, demand for linguists is soaring. There can be no doubt that British businesses will lose out if they do not make an effort to overcome language barriers.
I recently took part in an interview, organised by Quadrant, to debate this issue. You can watch it online here.
The UK must do more to ensure that we communicate better with our European partners. This will be good for political relations, but will also have significant educational and cultural benefits for young people.
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.
Many, probably the majority, of Britons speak only English and those who may have learnt foreign languages at school are not able to communicate with any proficiency in anything other than English. We, of course, all know this, and I for one think it’s a real shame. Not only do we miss out by not gaining knowledge of other countries and cultures, but we also find our job opportunities restricted. Free movement of people across the EU is not really free to those who do not speak other European languages and do not have the facility for learning another one which may be gained by achieving fluency in something other than your own mother tongue.
I do, in fact, have personal experience of this. Once elected to the European Parliament I thought it would be a good idea to get my ‘O’ level French up to a reasonable standard, partly because it’s useful to speak French in this environment and also because I really think that if you live in another country, even if only for part of the time, you ought to make an effort with their languauge. It’s been a struggle, and after 10 years I think I’m now getting there in that I’ve done media interviews in French and am able to read newspapers and documents. Given the amount of time and graft it’s taken at my time of life, I sincerely wish I’d leant French better at school and got to the standard many of my counterparts from other European countries have reached in English, ie total and effortless fluency.
I was not surprised, therefore, when the European Commissioner for Multilingualism, Leonard Orban, talked at the culture Committee today about the monolingualism of the British. We are far from reaching the EU target of everyone learning two foreign languages plus their mother tongue. The only ray of hope is the Labour Government’s commitment to introduce foreign language teaching in primary school. Please let’s build on this and give the next generation greater scope for work outside the English speaking world, extensive though that may be.
However, the Brits were praised on our approach to minority ethnic languages, as spoken in particular by immigrant communities. In my contribution to Mr Orban, I mentioned that I had been a governor of an inner London school where there were 39 mother tongue languages spoken (Deptford Park Primary School in Lewisham Borough). He replied by saying he had visited a school in the UK with 100 and was very impressed with the model of community integration and cohesion he saw. This is, of course, excellent news and I hope the British example will be recognised across Europe.