The British and learning other languages
Language learning in Britain has been unpopular for decades and has recently seen a rapid decline in uptake in schools, colleges and universities. Language learning used to be compulsory at secondary school level, with the usual choice between French, German and Spanish. Even though teenagers learned a second language at school, very few of these then went on to embed this learning and become proficient enough to communicate abroad. In recent years, language learning has been encouraged but not forced upon students at examination levels and so the numbers of second language speakers has declined even further.
With other nationalities around the world actively seeking foreign language learning, the questions raised should be:
Why are the British so averse to language learning?
Is it important that the British begin to take up language learning?
At a time of imminent exit from the European Union, it is more relevant than ever to explore Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world. As language is how we relate to each other, this is a crucial issue in today’s political landscape.
Britons of old would have had no problem with picking up new languages. They would have travelled to a neighbouring village and been faced with a completely different dialect. It would have been essential for these ancient British to exercise the part of the brain that detects patterns in languages – trade and inter-tribe relationships would have died instantly had they not.
So, the answer is not that the British do not have the brain for learning languages. A Brit’s capacity to learn a new way of speaking is as present as in the brains of humans the world over. However, this story of ancient Britons may reveal some of the reasons why they have stopped trying to communicate in anything other than English. The language of trade, of business, of the internet is now English – or so they say. The need to speak another culture’s language is reduced dramatically when they have been cajoled into learning yours.
Some would say there is a certain arrogance in this attitude. British people are declaring there is no need to learn all these other languages because everyone speaks English. This might be a little harsh on the Brits. Necessity breeds relevance – and as English is spoken by many people, the relevance in learning another language naturally diminishes. You are asking people to learn language out of respect for the other culture or out of an interest in language patterns. These are much more esoteric motivations and unlikely to promote huge numbers of learners.
The problem with this explanation is that people across the business world do not all speak English. The idea that your iPhone or similar “smart” device will act as translator of any note is equally a misjudgement. Anyone that has spent any time travelling or working internationally will know that to successfully communicate in a foreign country you need to learn the language.
So, what are the other reasons for a lack of language learning?
A popular explanation is that the British are put off learning languages from a young age. Learning a language is seen as a difficult option. Although youngsters realise that a language on your CV boosts your employability, the direct relevance to most careers are too tangential and it is easier to choose “simpler” subjects and promise to learn a language later if necessary. The promise given by many youngsters that they will take up a language later is a light of optimism in a dismal picture. However, many teachers will tell you that learning becomes much more difficult as you age and the brain connections needed for language learning will need to be retrained when older. They are naturally present when we are younger as we have just learnt to speak.
Furthermore, the impulse in schools for a long time has been to side-line languages in favour of imposing higher standards in literacy and mathematics. Students with low-level or even moderate English skills have been directed to remedial classes rather than being asked to learn a foreign language. Decline in funding in schools has also meant difficult choices in designing the curriculum and employing teachers. It is expensive to employ a teacher for each of the languages that should be learnt and it is easy to see why schools compromise language learning over other priorities.
Another explanation is revealed here. There are too many other languages to learn and knowing which language would be relevant is difficult for the British. The traditional languages of French, German and Spanish are still relevant, especially as Spanish is one of the most popularly spoken languages around the world. However, it might be more realistic to learn Chinese in today’s world, so sometimes it's not so easy to make up one's mind.
But with all these explanations maybe the answer is simpler. It could be a basic fear of getting it wrong or avoiding an appearance of ignorance by speaking the language incorrectly. The British are traditionally known as a reserved culture. The reticence to try a new language might simply be a reluctance to step forward in a strange country.
The case for learning a new language on a personal level is strong. Learning a language is excellent exercise for the brain. It can aid the memory and it can help develop new pathways that stave off brain degeneration. It also allows individuals to meet new people and find out about new cultures, which makes the world an eminently more interesting place to live.
However, the argument for the British to learn languages extends beyond the individual benefits. The lack of language skills in Britain is bad for the economy. According to a government report, the lack of foreign language skills costs the country about £48billion every year. The growth of small and medium sized businesses is hampered by the lack of skill available to negotiate global contracts – or else face the cost of employing linguists to help find new markets.
Arguably, the cost of the lack of linguists in Britain could rise with the impending Brexit. New trade deals will need to be negotiated and it is hard to sell products to people when you demand that they speak English to hear the benefits. You might find it easy to buy in English – but to sell your product or your service – you need to be willing to meeting your customer in their territory.
It is not just a matter of trade, it is also a matter of diplomacy and national security. The sharing of information around the world that is essential for safety and cooperation requires linguists. Many universities in the UK are now accepting this fact and are offering language courses alongside other degrees. It is now common, for instance, for those on a law degree to be offered a course in another language to help bolster the individual’s CVs but also produce legal experts who can work on a global stage for the country.
It is also about helping Brits move away from cultural isolationism. By learning a language, you get to know the countries you visit so much better. You understand more of the traditions and the history of these countries. The lack of language learning could arguably be making Britain less relevant in the world because they have restricted the expertise of the wider global experience. Britain needs experts in the Chinese culture, in the French culture, in the Malay culture and more – if the UK is to continue to influence politics on the world stage.
There is no doubt that the billions of English speakers around the world have made it easy for Brits to make the choice to ditch language learning. It might be over-estimated, how much of business is done in English, but it is easy to believe you could get by without a second language. The internet and much of the world’s popular culture is produced in English. One of the major motivations for learning a language must be necessity. The more the world learns English the less vital it will seem to British people to learn other languages.
The fact that Britain is about to extricate itself from the certain trading conditions of the EU into the global melee of bilateral trade deals may boost the need for more linguists. However, the question is: where are they going to come from?
The emphasis must be in teaching the young to understand the importance of learning languages – and in Britain it must be languages and not just a second language. And, this becomes a question of funding into schools and the need to offer incentives to young people.
The good news for those Brits who commit to learning three or more languages is that the more languages you learn the easier it becomes. Our brains are wonderful creations and as soon as we commit to being multilingual our brain will rise to the challenge. The task now is for the British government to persuade its people that they can speak foreign languages and they should or indeed must – if the UK is going to continue to prosper.