Dnde est our love of language learning?

30th January 2015 at 00:00
The old stereotype of monolingual Brits is more true than ever, but it's no joke. Adult education is key to remedying this ignorance

The decline in language learning in the UK is causing a crisis, in business and in culture. It's not rocket science that if you are trading with someone who speaks another language, it helps if you can communicate with each other. Likewise, being able to order a drink, ask for directions and translate a menu enhances the experience of overseas travel, just as being able to hold a conversation (however slowly) or read the paper in the local language enriches understanding of a region.

Learning another language offers a different way of seeing and making sense of the world. It's easy enough to find a translation in a dictionary, but that only tells you what a word denotes. All the suggestive meanings - the connotations - depend on context and on the metaphors that shape the language and the shared history of its speakers. Context is critical - think how many words the Inuit have for snow, for example.

Languages are repositories, too, of the changing values and mores of their speakers - look at the number of words the Victorians used for sentiment and sentimentality, then look at the number of words for sex and sexuality in our contemporary vocabulary. As Steffen Martus of Berlin's Humboldt University puts it, "a language operates according to its own internal laws.just as a language has its own inner form and logic, so do societies and communities".

Silent majority

In German folk high schools for adult learners, one in four is studying a foreign language. The same is true of Scandinavian study circles, Slovenian institutes of adult education and adult learners in China. But things are very different in the UK.

Despite the globalisation of trade and the explosion of international travel, foreign language learning is languishing among young people and adults alike. In part, the issue is cultural. In part (in the further education sector, at least) the blame lies with austerity and funding cuts, a scarcity of public classes and a lack of qualified specialist language teachers.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England reports a 22 per cent drop in full-time undergraduates studying languages between 2010-11 and 2012-13. Take-up of opportunities to study abroad through the Erasmus Programme is lower among UK students than those in most European partner countries. A glance at the further education curriculum confirms that language learning is concentrated on GCSE and A-level students; few engineering students or apprentices are learning a second or further language. This is partially the result of an increasing utilitarianism, which has sought to narrow state-funded learning opportunities down to explicit vocational goals. In this environment, language learning, however central to our industrial success, is too often cast into the wilderness of self-funded community learning, or into the thriving business of distance-based learning (with its high drop-out rates).

In primary schools, the welcome introduction of statutory language learning came in September 2014, but a quarter of schools responding to a 2013-14 language trends survey (by the CfBT Education Trust and the British Council) said no member of staff had a language qualification above a GCSE. A similar number said that staff were not confident teaching a language to Years 5 and 6. Meanwhile, in state secondary schools, language learning declined dramatically after the obligation to learn languages at key stage 4 was removed.

Worlds apart

It may be tempting to argue that none of this matters; that with globalisation and the rise of English as the language of international discourse in science, finance, air traffic control and countless other areas, there is little need for English speakers to undertake the hard slog of language acquisition.

The CBI disagrees. It argues that it is hugely valuable to be able to manage a modest introductory conversation in the language of your clients. That is exactly the competence that adult education classes provide, yet publicly funded opportunities for adult education have shrunk massively since 2004, and by a further 10 per cent in the past academic year. Language learning has not been spared: opportunities in most parts of England have dwindled, with a thinning-out of higher-level classes and a narrowing of the range of languages on offer. Provision continues in self-organised groups - such as the University of the Third Age and local language societies - and with private tutors, but their reach is often limited to the educationally accomplished and confident.

In its Languages for the Future report, the British Council highlights the 10 key languages needed by the UK and the numbers of British adults who can speak them. Spanish is top of the list, yet just 4 per cent of UK adults say they speak it well enough to hold a conversation. Arabic is next, with 1 per cent of UK adults, while French has 15 per cent. Mandarin Chinese has 1 per cent again; German 6 per cent; Portuguese less than 1 per cent; Italian 2 per cent; Russian 1 per cent; Turkish less than 1 per cent; and Japanese 1 per cent. The scale of the task is enormous, and the contrast with Britain's linguistic minorities (who are considerably more multilingual) is striking.

But there is another major challenge: to foster understanding among this country's - and Europe's - richly diverse communities. And there is no better route to mutual understanding, respect and harmony among neighbours than to speak even a little of each other's languages.

The weakness of UK adults' language proficiency is both a cultural and a public policy challenge. Given the social and economic benefits derived from even modest language competence, there is a need for a national strategy aimed at strengthening introductory as well as expert language skills, backed by serious public investment. We can't wait until today's primary pupils are grown up before we act.

Alan Tuckett is professor of education at the University of Wolverhampton and president of the International Council for Adult Education

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