We are constantly being told Britons are 'bad' at languages. Recent reports, which have used the terms of 'crisis' and 'language skills deficit' to describe the state of languages in the UK, have been taken as proof of this. Yet this lack of confidence (in students, teachers, parents, researchers and policy-makers alike) is arguably fuelling the vicious circle of foreign language decline.
It is easy to find evidence to back up the idea of a national 'language crisis'. The statistics are widely available: the last decade has seen a steep decline in students taking a language at GCSE; the number of students studying French and German at A-level almost halved since 2003; 40% of languages departments have shut down in British universities over the last 15 years.
But on top of this, there is also a proliferation of subjective and emotive language overlaying the facts. Time and again, we are told we are 'bad' at languages. That adjective might be substituted for 'bad', 'rubbish', 'terrible', 'appallingly bad' or even 'hopeless', but the message is clear.
It seems to me that there is some confusion here. The Brits do not have some kind of freak genetic indisposition that hinders them from learning foreign languages. The drop in uptake of languages is not the result of a lack of ability, but of a complex mix of factors: among others, the government's decision to make languages non-compulsory at GCSE in 2004; the perceived difficulty of language GCSEs and the pressure on schools to boost their grades; the erroneous assumption made by individuals and businesses that 'everyone speaks English' (erroneous because in fact only about a quarter of the world's population does). We might also add to this the constant reinforcement of the idea that Brits are 'bad' at languages, and the undermining of confidence that results from this.
In fact, confidence is crucial to language acquisition. In the educational context, it requires courage to talk in a foreign language without fearing that you will 'sound stupid' or 'get something wrong'. Language teachers at all educational levels will have experienced this: students often find it hard to be forthcoming if they are not sure how to express something, if they feel intimidated by people in the class who are 'better' than them, and so on. I put 'better' in inverted commas because language ability is very relative. One person's 'basic French' might be better than another's 'fluent French'. And a belief in one's ability to communicate in a foreign language is arguably just as important as one's knowledge or experience of that language.
Given that confidence is a key ingredient for the successful pursuit of language learning, it is likely that our national inferiority complex is a considerable factor impeding our progress. So let's start changing our language on language and see our 'language deficit' for what it is: a result of contingent factors that are already being challenged and changed rather than an unavoidable essential quality.