Adults keen to be understood

4th August 2006 at 01:00
Holidays and second homes abroad are fuelling a boom in language class enrolment, reports Martin Whittaker.

The stereotype of the monolingual British abroad - shouting in English to try and make themselves understood - has had its day. Foreign holidays and second homes overseas have brought a boom in language learning among adults, according to new research by the publisher Oxford University Press.

It claims that 27 per cent of people over 16 in the UK are using or learning a language other than English - equating to around 13 million adults. The majority of those surveyed - 55 per cent - are using or learning another language for travelling abroad on holiday. Eight per cent are doing it to work overseas, while 6 per cent cite having a second home abroad.

OUP's research found that French is still our favourite foreign language, being used or learned by 15 per cent of the adult population. Spanish comes next at 9 per cent, followed by German (6 per cent) and Italian (2 per cent).

Those aged between 16 and 24 are more likely to be learning French, German and Spanish.

And Spanish is particularly favoured among those aged between 45 and 64 as increasing numbers of middle-aged people buy a second home in the sun. Up to 70,000 Spanish properties are bought by the British each year.

The research was commissioned by OUP to inform its publishing of bilingual dictionaries. The publisher has launched a new range of dictionaries designed for first-time adult learners in French, Spanish, German, Italian and Russian.

Publishing manager Vivian Marr said: "In schools we're seeing a huge number of students leaving language learning. Numbers have plummeted ever since languages were no longer compulsory after the age of 14.

"But today the backlash seems to have been that more people are starting to learn a language informally because they recognise the need to have a language."

According to the National Centre for Languages (Cilt), there is strong demand for adult classes, with the English learning a wider range of languages than ever before.

A Cilt survey last year found that adults in England were learning 36 different languages in classes provided by local education authorities. But the organisation warns that fee increases and the Government's focus on skills, could mean that demand will remain unsatisfied.

Spokeswoman Teresa Tinsley said there is a large geographical variation.

"We heard of an adult college in Brighton which had doubled its numbers while having increased fees," she said. "Whereas one in the North-east has had to make cuts because people can't afford to pay the fees."

Languages tutor Abdellatif Erraoui was among the first further education staff to win a Star Award, and has been shortlisted for another FE "Oscar"

this year.

Despite his award he was made redundant from Bournville College, Birmingham, in January, after the number of learners reduced because of a three-fold increase in course prices. He currently works part-time for the city's adult education service, running family learning courses in French and Arabic. His courses are free and oversubscribed.

Mr Erraoui says many of the parents accompanying their children to his languages classes are there because they want to give their children a head start before they go to secondary school.

Meanwhile, FE colleges are also reporting a surge in demand for English courses among migrant workers, particularly eastern Europeans.

Colleges in the South-east have seen a change in their foreign students learning English. Alan Corbett of the Association of South East Colleges said: "Whereas the focus has traditionally been on Asian students, the last 12 month have witnessed a sea change, with the Polish community now at the top of the priorities list."

He says some colleges are going the extra mile. Havant College in Hampshire, for example, offers Polish workers at the local Estee Lauder factory teaching in English that is tailored to their work on the shopfloor. Another, Thanet College in Kent offers courses in French, Dutch, Spanish and Italian specially designed for local businesses.

There is also an appetite for languages among the less skilled.

Street-cleaners in Gloucester have been taught how to greet Japanese tourists in their own language as part of an NVQ level 2 in customer service.

"The course was extremely popular," said a city council spokesman. "So much so that there are plans in the pipeline to roll the course out to other employees."

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