One of the most persistent phrases showing just how wrong the UK can get its attitude to language learning is "this nation is just rubbish at language learning". I come across it all the time, and in fact started this blog as a way of battling that very myth. You know what I believe: Nobody is rubbish at language learning. Just look at the language café report!
State of the Nation
I think a sentence that might be closer to the truth is "this nation (and it's government) is not that interested in language learning". One place where you can really see the roots of this is in the education system and policies. I wrote about it previously in "The Age Myth strikes again" and today I want to share the findings of a report by the British Academy. They looked into demand and supply of language skills in the UK in a very detailed report, and here's what they found:
- The demand for language skills is rising all around the world, yet the UK is suffering from a growing deficit. What this means is that when a company does need skills in foreign languages, they'll rather teach their own experts a language than advertise for a linguist right from the start. This in turn makes languages less attractive because students are worried about future employment. Vicious circle complete.
- Language teaching is just not good enough - the range is too small, the courses are only offered to some kind of "elite", and the uptake is often low. In Wales (a bilingual country!) only 3% of GCSE subject entries are in foreign languages.
- The country produces great language experts, but those don't have an opportunity to develop other skills. The language courses are taught in isolation and so often they focus on travel and basic conversation, not workplace skills, customer service or management.
- The government is operating way differently to what the job and cultural markets actually need!
There are some encouraging and positive points in the report as well, such as the great attitudes from employers towards languages. They really need and value them. The case studies are big companies like B&Q, Gatwick Airport but also interesting small and medium sized enterprises like New Era Aquaculture.
The overall message is clear though: The government should really have another look at encouraging, promoting and facilitating language learning. Every now and then a good news item comes out, for example the English Baccalaureate seems to be slowly bringing on some more focus on languages - but at the same time that article mentions anti-European sentiments. And the attitudes you encounter can be even worse, need I really mention the Daily Mail here...Can we just not make any progress?!
What you can do
You don't have to become a polyglot to support language learning in the UK. Easy steps to take might just be to think about what's available beyond British borders. German statesman Willy Brand famously said that if you are buying, he'll speak English. But if you are selling, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen! And perhaps consider what your kids are being told at school - if you have to be great at French to even be offered a second language, I believe that is just plain wrong!
In other words, languages are great for business, great for Britain and great for all learners. I wonder what those from other English speaking countries like the USA will say to this?