No Foreign Languages Please, We're British; the English Are Notoriously Bad at Learning Languages. but Where Are We Going Wrong, Asks Sarah Evans

By Evans, Sarah | The Birmingham Post (England), August 15, 2000 | Go to article overview

No Foreign Languages Please, We're British; the English Are Notoriously Bad at Learning Languages. but Where Are We Going Wrong, Asks Sarah Evans


Evans, Sarah, The Birmingham Post (England)


If you have taken a foreign holiday during this year, did you do one of the following:

a) engage with the locals in a detailed analysis on the impact of the euro?

b) competently and efficiently deal with the unusual disaster that overtook you in a remote village?

c) philosophise with a non English speaking student of life over a bottle of wine, under the stars?

d) return with new thoughts, new perspectives, a wiser person because of these experiences?

If, like me, the answer is no, then you are probably native speaking English, with, at best, what the Council of Europe has defined as a basic Breakthrough level of competency in the necessary language. You were probably rather pleased to manage 'bonjour' by the time you returned to Dover.

We have tutted over our lack of fluency in modern languages for generations and the bad news is that there are few signs of improvement.

Although most students now continue with a modern language until 16, only one in ten continue post-16. At a time when the total number of students entering degree courses has risen, those accepted onto degree courses in modern languages has decreased.

There is ample evidence of the importance of fluency in more than one language, apart from making the most of a holiday. Employers in business point out the wide gulf that exists between the needs of the global market, with its accelerating rate of international communications and the rapid flow of cross border mergers and acquisitions, and the education supply in the UK.

The EU, we have had it drummed into us, is about mobility of labour and the best jobs will go to those who are bi, if not multi, lingual.

We hear daily on radio and television examples of foreigners fluent in English. Learning a language conveys a respect for the identity and culture of others and a welcoming of diversity. From many perspectives, learning a language is good.

Why then are the English bad at it and not getting better? The Nuffield Languages Inquiry has just been published and has tried to answer the question. It analyses what is wrong with the approach to language education in this country and explores what we can learn from pockets of good practice here and practices overseas.

It makes a number of recommendations aimed at the business community, education and politicians, which, if implemented would create a better society for the next generation.

The Inquiry wants a languages supremo appointed to establish a national strategy for developing capability in languages. This seems to be the Star Wars style standard inquiry response to any problem at the moment.

More usefully, the government is recommended to declare a firm commitment to early language leaning for all children from seven, and to make a second language a requirement for all post 18 education.

Embracing a far wider range of languages should be encouraged - French as the main stay of school modern language departments is no longer enough.

Fitting yet more into the school curriculum fills all of us in education with some foreboding. …

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No Foreign Languages Please, We're British; the English Are Notoriously Bad at Learning Languages. but Where Are We Going Wrong, Asks Sarah Evans
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