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Language Learning in the UK: Let's Make Sure We're Not Lost for Words

18/04/2016 08:31

'Je ne comprends pas' - a phrase more young people in England will soon be uttering if new research looking at language learning in English schools is anything to go by.

Released today, this year's Language Trends Survey - from the British Council and Education Development Trust - sees teachers expressing 'deep concerns' about the current state of languages in schools in England. While there does appear to be some good progress in primary schools - including welcome investment in specialist language expertise - things are proving more challenging at secondary level. The exams system, in particular, is flagged as a major concern and the uptake of languages remains low compared to other subjects - last year, for example, the number of pupils taking a languages GCSE was around half the number of those taking one in maths.

While 'sacre bleu!' may feel like the most appropriate exclamation for those of us who are language fans, with English increasingly becoming the world's lingua franca, does it really matter that our young people learn other languages? Doesn't everyone speak English these days anyway?

While of course speaking English is a huge asset for us, other languages are absolutely vital for the UK's future prosperity. In fact speaking only English might be considered as much as a disadvantage as speaking no English at all when it comes to young people hoping to compete in an increasingly global jobs market. To quote the most recent CBI/Pearson Education and Skills survey, 'Language study can also indicate that an individual may have an international outlook and, for those who study to a higher level, evidence of the ability to work in diverse teams and with other cultures'.

And no, not everyone does speak English anyway - in fact, only a quarter of the world's population speaks English and, while that's clearly a lot of people, it still leaves three quarters with whom we're - quite literally - lost for words!

The reality is that as the world becomes increasingly connected, it's no longer enough to rely on English alone. Our current lack of language skills is said to be holding back the UK's international trade performance at a cost of almost £50 billion a year and employers are crying out for language skills. With this in mind, we need far more of our young people to learn languages in order to boost their own job prospects and to help the UK stay competitive on the world stage. More than that, understanding another language is the basis for understanding another culture - and an open mind and an international outlook have never been more important for the UK's place in the world.

So, what can be done to ensure that schools are able to help our young people achieve their linguistic ambitions? How do we reverse the downward trend?

First of all, nothing can replace the experience of being immersed for a short period in a real foreign language environment which can give the opportunity to make rapid progress in language proficiency as well as a chance to glimpse life through the eyes of another culture. Enabling pupils to have meaningful contacts with pupils from the country of the language they are learning, or having a young native speaker in their classroom can provide a great boost to motivation. At the British Council, we have lots of ways for schools to start their international and language learning journeys through initiatives such as our Language Assistants programme or through Erasmus+.

Secondly, it's important to realise that language learning in schools isn't doomed but as the latest Language Trends survey shows, there is work to be done. If we really are going to tackle the situation head on, we need to be committed to ensuring that languages are recognised as critical for the UK's future and that less common but important languages such as Mandarin Chinese become a realistic choice for a critical mass of schools and young people. Most importantly perhaps, we need to recognise that languages aren't a waste of time - they are good for young people, good for business and good for life. Parents, schools and businesses can all play their part in this respect and while we may have a long journey ahead of us to get language learning back on track, it is an important journey to make.

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