Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why Languages Matter

If I had become an MP, I had decided one of the causes I would take up in Parliament would be the teaching of languages in schools. Figures released today illustrate why I was right to be concerned.

The numbers taking French as a GCSE have halved over the last eight years, with German showing a simnilar decline. The last government removed the compulsion for 14-16 year olds to take a language several years ago and we are now seeing the long term effects. Many schools discourage kids from studying languages as they are considered "difficult" subjects in which pupils are less likely to attain 'A' grades.

We have never been great linguists in this country, and many take the attitude that we don't need to learn a language because everyone abroad speaks English. That's an incredibly 'Little Englanderish" attitude and one which hampers people who do business abroad. The ability to converse with people in their own language can open many doors.

Perhaps, however, we are also guilty of being too conservative in our teaching of languages. Maybe instead of sticking to trusty old French and German we should be encouraging schools to offer more courses in Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and Russian.

I studied German at university because I had intended to become a German teacher. With such a declining demand for German teachers, I'm beginning to think it's lucky my career took a rather different turn!


Tapestry said...

bilingual kids are streets ahead. it doesn't matter what the language is. they learn more than one culture as well as more than one language. they can then learn others more easily.

'little englanders', originally, didn't want to build an empire in africa, or send an army to conquer the Boers.

It's funny how the folks who use the phrase against others now, would rather die than build a British empire.

They want Britain to disappear into the euro. It's gone from being a call to patriotism, for more England, to a call for less.

Rush-is-Right said...

"We have never been great linguists in this country, and many take the attitude that we don't need to learn a language because everyone abroad speaks English."

Very true. The Spanish have a similar attitude in my experience. When you travel it's odd how the locals react to spoken English. In Frankfurt for example it seems like every other person speaks English perfectly adequately. In Vienna on the other hand, it's very hard to find an English speaker. I know, I got hopelessly lost there last week!

Johnny Norfolk said...

Iain The problem is everyone wants to speak English. I worked in Germany for 2 years and my desk was in an office with about 10 native Germans. They said they were so looking forward to me working with them that they were going to speak English all the tome to improve THEIR skills. When I protested they would hear nothing of it as they accepted english as the world langusge. When I worked in France they did not do the same but my French was better than my German.So my German improved but not as quickly as it may have done. So its not easy.
Most international companies have english as ther langguage.

PJH said...

Perhaps we should be concentrating on English, Maths, Science etc, before branching out into foreign languages, drama, and the like.

Inflated A level passes notwithstanding, the level of illiteracy in this country is abysmal, as evidenced by the complaints of employers[1] that school leavers are (and I paraphrase) unable to write their names on the application forms and add up two numbers in their head.


Roger Thornhill said...

There is no justification to compel people to take a second language, especially when that compulsion happens so late in life.

If one was to "compel", one should do it at age 7 or thereabouts when kids are more attuned, but I am against compulsion even then.

For kids to learn something like a language, surely they need to want to learn. If you distort the school's behaviour with targets or ratings or whathaveyou, deal with that, otherwise you are adding a distortion to a distortion and will sooner or later have to add another distortion upon that to rebalance again. "Not enough people learning Geography!!!!" wail!

Leave. Schools. Alone.

Leave. Kids. Alone.

End monopolies on exam boards.
End central targets and control over curriculum.
Let Heads run their schools.
Get out of the way re new schools and let a surplus of places come about so bad schools must reform or die.*

Parliament is NOT the place to sort out language uptake, Iain, unless it is where you dismantle distortions and interference from the centre. Language uptake is sorted by people WANTING to take it up.

* No, Gove's plans will NOT do this. Gove's plans are still too centralised, require "asking for permission", limits who can build, manage, run schools and we see attempts at more tinkering with the curriculum (e.g. More History).

Anonymous said...

Aha, a subject dear to my own heart. Yes, of course languages I speak good French and passable German. I cannot see the point of going anywhere without learning a few words of the local lingo. It's polite, it's fun, it's a challenge and it makes the journey much cheaper.

I have countless examples of instances when bills have been halved, services proffered free, hospitality shared and upgrades given just from having been able to stumble through the basic courtesies, rather than relying on English.

My best 'score' so far has been 10 languages used in a fortnight's holiday: English, French, German, Arabic, Japanese, Swedish, Greek, Finnish, Italian and Divehi on a diving trip to the Maldives - long ago when they were not as scorchingly expensive as now.

Just knowing the words for 'please', 'thank you', 'hello' and 'sorry, but I don't speak xxx-ish' can make all the difference. The very fact that English is becoming the world language means that we can have the fun of learning crucial phrases in countless lingos for fun and profit, without necessarily having to become as fluent in any one of them as others are obliged to be in English.

AndyMac said...

The point is that the lanuage skill on its own is of no benefit. There ain't no money in transalation services when you are undercut by cheaper natives of the land your skill is in, and google translate.

When you need an array of A*s to get you anywhere you cannot afford the luxury of a language course you might not excel in as a potential come-in-handy.

Anonymous said...

I agree that languages are important. At school, I studied German for two years and took French to GCSE (if I remember rightly, I got a B).

With today's multicultural society and the increasing number of opportunities to work abroad, it's vital that foreign languages are taught early.

Tim Fenton said...

Although I often disagree with you, Iain, and will doubtless continue to do so, on this you are spot on.

For far too many folks, going abroad means visiting anglophone ghettos and otherwise being shepherded by guides, such is the lack of ability to use the local language - or even attempt basic things like pronunciation.

Even a few words of the local tongue can pay dividends: if you move a little in the locals' direction, they will readily reciprocate. English spoken slowly and loudly may sound funny in the retelling, but in reality it's disrespectful and ignorant.

And at a purely practical level, if you have language skills, then it makes you more marketable, whatever your line of business.

Also, just because signage across EU countries is routinely shown in English as well as the local tongue, that does not mean that everyone speaks English.

Stephen Wigmore said...

I have said somewhere that the decline in French and German is being compensated by the rise of Spanish, Mandarin etc.

IS this true? Or is there an absolute decline in all foreign language teaching?

John Holmes said...

If you add up the numbers taking a foreign language without worrying about which language, they show that languages are still one of the most widely studied GCSEs. For me, the problem is overstated due to an obssession with French and German.

Unsworth said...

Damn right. Our proficiencies with languages are awful. To my shame, my friends across the world all have better language skills than me and most Britons. My contemporaries in Switzerland tend to speak German, French, English, some Italian and so on. Those in Germany mostly have very good English, those in the Far East usually have English, plus an assortment of Eastern languages. My American friends tend to struggle with real English (naturally), but can often speak Latin based languages such as Spanish.

Then again, maybe as a diminishing power we no longer need to speak foreign languages - the disappearance of Empire has seen to that. And I might observe that English is not well taught and understood here, either. Hence the rise of the illiterate and inarticulate - some of whom have recently been ennobled.

Anonymous said...

See my post

Anonymous said...

An advantage of learning a language such as French is that it requires the study of grammar. It should be compulsory to teach at least one foreign language.

Richard said...

My wife taught French at a time when it was compulsory for 14-16 year olds to study a language.

She described the impossibility of trying to teach French verbs to children who, at 15, don't know what a verb is. Asking kids who could not write a simple letter in English to write one in French was a waste of time.

About 20% of pupils entering secondary school are now "functionally illiterate". Nearly all of them will remain functionally illiterate throughout their secondary school career.

Trying to teach foreign languages to kids like that is like trying to teach a toddler to run the steeplechase. It's not going to happen.

It's right to say that the British lack foreign language skills. However, it wont be possible to do anything about this until the lack of English language skills is addressed.

JamesW said...

The first problem is that they speak all sorts of funny languages abroad, so which one to learn? Our foreign friends have an easier choice to make.

A second problem is exposure. When I was at school in Aberdeen I did French, as that is what you learn at school. I never went to France until I was 18 - it's a long way from Aberdeen! A few hours a week, with no other exposure to the language isn't going to teach you anything. Again our foreign friends have an advantage, as many of them actively want to consume anglophone movies and music. Not so many younger fans of Johnny Halliday or Monsieur Hulot's Holiday in the reverse direction.

Thirdly, everyone knows it is much easier to pick up another language when you are young. So why do so many schools leave language tuition until secondary school?

I find myself in India now, and have picked up a bit of Hindi. However, all the nice middle class Indians I know speak far better English than I manage in Hindi (and Hindi is not necessarily their first language either), so conversation does default to English.

My six year old daughter shows the advantage of youth. She speaks (and is taught in school) English and Hindi. She has picked up some Marathi from our maid, and Telugu from her mother. She learnt the Arabic for 1-10 in an afternoon from her seven year old cousin who lives in Dubai.

Goodwin said...

Absolutely right Iain but how many of our "yoof" are currently struggling with the basics of the English language? We have txting and email to blame for a lot of the problem but bad parenting and teaching haven't exactly helped. We'd be better off concentrating on reestablishing the basics of our native tongue first.

Village Bookworm said...

Our national problem is a variation on your thought. Because English is the universal second language, what is ours?

My son who is just about to start [state] secondary school has a choice of French or Spanish. Local private schools now have Chinese and Russian departments!

Bill Chapman said...

You wrote, "Perhaps, however, we are also guilty of being too conservative in our teaching of languages."

Let me suggest a radical approach. We could make use of Esperanto as an introduction to language learning and as a tool for communication in its own right.

Costello said...

Perhaps, however, we are also guilty of being too conservative in our teaching of languages. Maybe instead of sticking to trusty old French and German we should be encouraging schools to offer more courses in Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and Russian.

Without a doubt Spanish is a more useful international language than either French or German - and is the only one which might conceivably come to challenge English as world language. As for Arabic and Mandarin - certainly allow the option but making these far, far, far more difficult languages compulsory when most students struggle with French and German (which are both intimately related to English) would be madness. As for Russian - why bother? Russia is a basketcase country and, quite frankly, is dying as a nation due to how irredeemably f*cked they are demographically with an incredibly low fertility rate, plummeting life expectancies and spiralling rates of AIDS infections.

Costello said...

The problem is everyone wants to speak English.

Spot on Johnny Norfolk. A couple of years ago i decided i'd make a concerted effort to learn German but was soon tripped up by the fact that, quite frankly, the Germans won't speak it to you. I'd start talking in German, they would nod their understanding and then respond in English. In Germany there never, ever, came a time when i needed to speak German. The only time my limited knowledge of German was of use was when i was in Turkey and it came in handy as a lingua franca between myself and Turks who spoke no English but did speak German.

Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more. We need to realise the benefits of teaching languages to a better standard. It should be standard practice that schoolchildren learn how to speak, read and write another language to a reasonable level by the age of 13. Then when taking their options they should be able to decide whether to study a language in more depth. I know Austrians and Scandinavians who took papers similar to our GCSE language papers at the age of ten.

I also think we need to move away from the traditional languages we have studied. The focus should now be on Spanish and Mandarin - the two languages with the most native speakers in the world. They also just happen to be from two parts of the world which will likely emerge as giants of business over the next century.

TeonGordon said...

Very true article. Wrote something about this yesterday. Quite shocking that they did not have a hint of prescience about the way economics would turn and the value that the languages in the globalised world would bring.

Thomas Widmann said...

I agree learning foreign languages is extremely worthwhile, but I think there should be a stated goal, namely a command of the language in question that is good enough to allow people to study or work abroad.
I grew up in Denmark, and when I started university it was clearly stated that you had to be able to read course literature in Danish, English, Norwegian, Swedish and either German, French, Spanish and Russian. Obviously high school teaching had been geared towards this.
Rather than teaching kids in the UK how to order a beer abroad, I think the goal should be to be able to understand books and TV in the foreign language.

Maverick Ways said...

Another case of New Labour abrogating its responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

I work at the EC from time to time as an external academic expert, and have the most elementary knowledge of French. Where as some project officers there can speak 3-4 laguages, their own like Danish , French and Spanish and some German thrown in. I feel so jealous of them. My son took French in his GCSE, and became good at it. But when he went to the university to study biological sciences at UCL, he did not want to take it even as a half-unit which was offered a s an option. It is a pity, he was good in spoken and written French as he had a good native French speaker as French teacher in his GCSE.

The King of Wrong said...

@Bill Chapman:
That would only mean you'd be able to speak to the sort of people who choose to learn Esperanto. And if that doesn't seem bad, pretend I'd said "Klingon" instead.

There are enough natural languages without people inventing new ones and relying on force of will, instead of creolisation, to produce the detailed grammar.

jas88 said...

A drop in French or German study doesn't bother me at all, since it's essentially a meaningless sliver of a picture. The news foreign language study is dropping wouldn't bother me much either, viewed in context: never mind *foreign* languages, our schools are failing at BASIC LITERACY.

I have two colleagues, both with PhDs, who have what I would consider to be a flawed level, less than fluent - but only one has the excuse that English is his second language: the other cannot even speak his own native language properly.

In these circumstances, to worry about *foreign* language teaching strikes me as akin to complaining of a shortage of gourmet condiments during a famine: at best, completely missing the point, and probably detracting from useful relief efforts as well. Better to scrap French and German entirely and produce *literate* adults than to waste public money making it easier for a few to order drinks on holiday while their contemporaries can't add up or identify an adverb!

Brian Barker said...

I see that President Obama wants everyone to learn another language, however which one should it be? The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Arabic, out of the equation.

It is time to move forward and discuss the subject of a common international language, taught worldwide, in all schools and in all nations. As a native English speaker, my vote is for Esperanto.

Please look at A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

Unknown said...

Our family is learning Spanish. We live in the US and obviously many opportunities to speak in Spanish exist. Unfortunately second languages are not encouraged as much as they should be here in the US. And the method they are taught in High School and college does not lend itself to actual fluency.

To encourage others learning Spanish, I began a blog, which you can access here

If you're learning a second language, don't give up. Keep going. It will bring great enjoyment into your life.