Is there any point to learning a foreign language in the UK?

Last week new figures confirmed that French had dropped out of the top ten exam subjects taken at GCSE level by 14-16 year olds in England.  Spanish is the only language with slightly higher pupil numbers.  Is this sad news or an inevitable consequence of living in an English-dominated world?

Yet while we’ve all seen (and heard!) tourists abroad who believe that everyone should speak/understand English, the figures don’t seem to back up the worldwide primacy of English. On a radio programme today Baroness  Coussins (Chair of the all-party Parliamentary group on modern languages) confirmed that only 6% of the world’s population are native English speakers and three-quarters speak no English at all.

So why do we have such a short-sighted view of language learning? Since 2004 foreign languages have been optional after the age of 14  in England.  In Scotland they are compulsory up to the age of 13 and afterwards they are “encouraged” up to about 15 (i.e. it is an opt-out rather than opt-in).  Instead, the real gulf in teaching facilities for modern languages is between private and state schools, highlighting yet again the enormous disparity in education that exists here.

Teaching methods obviously need to be looked at.  One suggestion that seemed excellent was that other disciplines could be taught in a foreign language (e.g. history of art in Italian, or particular topics of European history in the relevant foreign language).  The lack of language skills in history is particularly important as more and more university students studying European history are unable to read the original source materials.  This has led to a burgeoning number of books containing annotated source materials in translation. These are useful but at the time also restrictive because they obviously impose another layer of subjective choice on the material: you’ll find historian x’s selection of the “essential” sources, and only neatly edited passages at that!

Where should the foreign language debate go next?  The first step would be to make language learning compulsory (again) until sixteen for all.  But to allow for different ranges of ability you could divide between more innovatively taught language classes  (that also include a stronger emphasis on grammar and speaking) and a more general form of “foreign culture” awareness (these classes might take in foreign societies and cultures, traditions, food and other aspects). If we don’t try to keep up the numbers of school pupils going on to become university-trained linguists working in business, research, government and as translators/interpreters, then I think we really will face a dull and unrewarding future as a monoglot nation in a multilingual world.

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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