THE BLOG

UK Education: Make Language a Core Skill

10/09/2013 13:37 BST | Updated 08/11/2013 10:12 GMT

How many languages can you speak? The likely answer is one, English. The reason is that you probably studied languages briefly in secondary school, perhaps have a GCSE or O Level, but then rarely or never used what was learned again - and so the skill vanished.

Traditionally, this hasn't really presented a problem for most people. Many other countries speak English to a reasonable level and it has for a long time been the business language. Perhaps it's therefore unsurprising that we have lost sight of language's power to open up the world to us. But things are changing and other languages are becoming more prevalent as technology is enabling us to easily connect and interact in a culturally, commercially and linguistically diverse world.

Now is therefore the time for us to reflect on what language can do in this new world. We must recognise that language is the essence of communication and cultural understanding; it makes travelling more immersive and business more productive.

Undoubtedly we need to re-assess the position language holds in our education and society.

Unfortunately, and because we've lost sight of the potential, languages currently aren't a high priority in primary or secondary schools. The kids' focus is very firmly on achievement in Maths, English and Science. While we don't want to argue against the importance of these core subjects, languages must surely have their place alongside them.

Highlighting languages' disappointing place in education were the recent A Level and GCSE results. Although GCSE language studying was on the up, it is widely believed that this only due to the requirement for a language to qualify for the English Baccalaureate, suggesting that languages are being treated as a means to an end. Meanwhile, A-Levels saw such a dramatic drop in the number of students studying languages that two exam boards are launching official investigations.

If we are to prepare the next generation of business and public sector leaders, entrepreneurs and educators in a more international environment, then surely we must equip them with the right skills. We need to see language repositioned in the education system and society as a natural yet critical, horizon-broadening skill. It's a skill that's not only critical to individuals' success but also to the competitiveness of our economy as a whole. We've long evolved to being a knowledge-driven economy so why are we not providing the skills needed to thrive amongst fierce global competition?

Other countries are way ahead of us here in the UK - the likes of Sweden and Norway have for a long time had in place language learning from a very young age. Indeed, by starting at a young age they have capitalised on critical learning periods in our lives, allowing children to learn more quickly and easily than if they were older.

Bringing about such a dramatic shift in the way that language skills are seen would require the Government to come out and be bold, to invest in the long-term future with long-term and transformational policies. For example, whilst beginning to teach children languages at a young age would be a huge step in the right direction, if this wasn't continued through primary and into secondary education the effectiveness of the push would be limited. This policy would also need the public's backing, and require it to show its desire for languages to be pushed further up the agenda.

Languages open many doors, both culturally and in business, and if we can commit to making the long-term policy changes that are so desperately needed then the students of the future really will have the world at their feet.