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Failing to learn languages causes more than just embarrassment

There’s nothing quite like that sinking feeling of shame when trying to string together some broken French or German when abroad, and being met with immaculately spoken English. Pity has been taken upon you and all you can think is ‘was it that obvious?’ It seems it’s not just us that realise how bad the English are at learning languages, but also everyone else in Europe. Many a time I have squirmed inside as somebody from abroad apologises for their poor English when in fact they probably speak it better than I do. Embarrassingly, a survey in 2004 found that only one in ten UK workers could speak a foreign language, and less than 5% could count to twenty in a language other than their own.

The learning of languages in schools needs to be addressed seriously. The current decline is worse than it’s ever been – this year French GCSE fell out of the top ten most studied subjects for the first time, with less than one in four students now studying it. The fact that we are so poor at learning foreign languages goes a lot further than being a bit embarrassed when ordering a drink on holiday – in fact, the detrimental effects go a lot deeper than that.

The Centre of Information for Language Teaching states that we are “letting our young people down” due to the fact that they can “opt out” of language learning as young as the age of thirteen. This is true, but the problem surely comes from not dropping the subject early, but from not beginning it from a younger age. In some countries, such as Norway and Luxembourg, foreign language teaching begins at the age of six.  Attempts were made by Labour to make language learning compulsory in primary schools from the age of seven, legislation that was due to begin in September 2011. Unfortunately, in the run up to the election they were defeated on this, and the Coalition Government have yet to announce any similar plans.

The Independent newspaper has made some progress since the summer of trying to open up the debate on the crisis of language learning in UK schools. It seems strange then, that they would support the irate xenophobic rant of their columnist Julie Burchill which appeared in the paper just this last week. Observing gleefully that 66% of Europeans now speak English, she derided Luxembourg for being the only country not to teach English, but instead German, as a first foreign language. “You’ll probably never have to beg them not to murder your entire family again for looking at you funny – so give that nasty, phlegmy tongue up and learn English like the rest of your continental cousins.” This bizarre, offensive attitude seems pointless and a deliberate attempt to be provocative, and unfortunately adds nothing to a serious debate about our need to catch up with our European peers in terms of being able to converse with them in a tongue other than our own.

Our lack of language skills is set to cause us problems when entering the international jobs market, but also weakens our position further as the UK begins to lose its position as a leader in education. Experts have warned that severe cuts could see the UK falling rapidly from its current position as the second strongest university system in the world. Other countries may be in the same dire economic straits as us, but they have chosen to invest in higher education rather than cut it, recognising the importance of universities for their future economy. So why then are we saddled with a universities minister that states that students are a ‘burden on the taxpayer that had to be tackled’? Figures also suggest that between 2000 and 2008, the UK has gone from third to fifteenth in numbers of students graduating compared with other industrial countries. Although the number of students going to university has risen year on year, it has not gone up as rapidly as in some other countries, such as Finland, where 80% of young women now go to university – the highest proportion in the world. This suggests a lull in social mobility in our country, if nothing else.

The worrying reality that the UK is seeing a decline in its university system compared with its European acquaintances, coupled with the fact that our communication with other nationalities is so poor puts forward a worrying vision of the UK as a country becoming increasingly isolated and afraid to move forward.

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