On the Map - Language-learning - English supremacy challenged

28th May 2010 at 01:00

Pictograms have not completely eradicated the need to learn foreign languages, despite the ubiquity across Europe of many traffic signs and green emergency exit symbols.

As we know, despite our penchant for holidays in the sun, the British all too often remain duffers in the language stakes, even when language learning was compulsory in the national curriculum. Until recently, we started too late, eschewing the need to begin language learning in primary school. Most pupils in the UK learn only one foreign language, compared with an average of 1.5 for the EU as a whole, and more than two in Finland and Luxembourg.

Of course, the UK has benefited from the growth of English as the language of world communication. Portugal, despite its historic connections with Britain, remains one of the few EU countries where fewer than three-quarters of upper-secondary pupils learn English, compared with the 99 per cent in Finland.

Probably the biggest change over the past quarter century has been the decline in compulsory Russian in the former Warsaw Pact countries. French, once the language of the diplomatic community, is now taught to fewer than a third of pupils in Spain, Italy and the UK.

Germany may be the economic powerhouse of the EU, but few countries now require their pupils to learn the language of Goethe and Schiller. It will be no surprise that this week's Eurovision Song Contest features many entries with lyrics in what passes for English among the songwriting fraternity. No fewer than 23 of the 39 entrants will sing in English, including Russia, Germany and Turkey.

But English may have passed its zenith, as Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and even Brazilian Portuguese seem set to challenge its linguistic supremacy. Will English still be the dominant language at Eurovision in 20 years' time? Cast your votes now.

John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education.

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