A recent call in the House of Lords to make language learning compulsory in UK primary and secondary schools begs the question, ‘Why are we Brits so bad at speaking foreign languages?’
A big reason is undoubtedly because we think we don’t need to. With almost one billion people around the world estimated to speak our language why bother to learn theirs?
Another is simply that learning languages is hard and tends to happen only if schools or the state insist on it. In 2004 the government removed the legal compulsion to teach foreign languages past the age of 14. Just 23% of state schools now ask their pupils to be proficient in a second language at the age of 16 and, as a result, the number of secondary-school children in Britain passing exams in modern languages has almost halved.
But it is becoming clear that monoglot Britons could find their job prospects increasingly restricted unless they parlez français or sprechen deutsch a little more in the future.
Brits are already losing out in Europe because of an inability to speak a second or, perish the thought, a third language. While Britain accounts for more than 12 per cent of the EU’s population, just 5 per cent of Eurocrats hold British passports. And British graduate applicants for EU jobs comprise a measly 1.5 per cent of the total.
The Lords’ call is one of a range of proposals aimed at boosting UK student mobility through greater participation in programmes such as Erasmus, where all or part of a degree is studied abroad. Currently students in France, Germany and Spain are three times more likely as those in Britain to take part in the scheme.
Personally, I agree with the House of Lords and believe the British education system is letting our youngsters down and limiting their future career and lifestyle potential by not making language lessons compulsory in school. The evidence is clear that speaking more than one language opens doors socially and in business. After the three R’s, I struggle to see what can be more beneficial, practical and intellectually stimulating than learning a foreign language.
Explore, Most Spoken Languages in The World, February 2011
BBC News, All children should learn foreign languages, March 2012
The Pie, Lords call for greater UK-EU mobility, March 2012
Conversis – The Professional Translation Service Agency
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