Dónde Está Our Love of Language Learning?

By Tuckett, Alan | Times Educational Supplement, January 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Dónde Está Our Love of Language Learning?


Tuckett, Alan, Times Educational Supplement


The old stereotype of monolingual Brits is more true than ever, but it's no joke. Adult education is key to remedying this ignorance

The decline in language learning in the UK is causing a crisis, in business and in culture. It's not rocket science that if you are trading with someone who speaks another language, it helps if you can communicate with each other. Likewise, being able to order a drink, ask for directions and translate a menu enhances the experience of overseas travel, just as being able to hold a conversation (however slowly) or read the paper in the local language enriches understanding of a region.

Learning another language offers a different way of seeing and making sense of the world. It's easy enough to find a translation in a dictionary, but that only tells you what a word denotes. All the suggestive meanings - the connotations - depend on context and on the metaphors that shape the language and the shared history of its speakers. Context is critical - think how many words the Inuit have for snow, for example.

Languages are repositories, too, of the changing values and mores of their speakers - look at the number of words the Victorians used for sentiment and sentimentality, then look at the number of words for sex and sexuality in our contemporary vocabulary. As Steffen Martus of Berlin's Humboldt University puts it, "a language operates according to its own internal laws...just as a language has its own inner form and logic, so do societies and communities".

Silent majority

In German folk high schools for adult learners, one in four is studying a foreign language. The same is true of Scandinavian study circles, Slovenian institutes of adult education and adult learners in China. But things are very different in the UK.

Despite the globalisation of trade and the explosion of international travel, foreign language learning is languishing among young people and adults alike. In part, the issue is cultural. In part (in the further education sector, at least) the blame lies with austerity and funding cuts, a scarcity of public classes and a lack of qualified specialist language teachers.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England reports a 22 per cent drop in full-time undergraduates studying languages between 2010-11 and 2012-13. Take-up of opportunities to study abroad through the Erasmus Programme is lower among UK students than those in most European partner countries. A glance at the further education curriculum confirms that language learning is concentrated on GCSE and A-level students; few engineering students or apprentices are learning a second or further language. This is partially the result of an increasing utilitarianism, which has sought to narrow state-funded learning opportunities down to explicit vocational goals. In this environment, language learning, however central to our industrial success, is too often cast into the wilderness of self-funded community learning, or into the thriving business of distance-based learning (with its high drop-out rates).

In primary schools, the welcome introduction of statutory language learning came in September 2014, but a quarter of schools responding to a 2013-14 language trends survey (by the CfBT Education Trust and the British Council) said no member of staff had a language qualification above a GCSE. …

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