Moving on to a multilingual community

9th March 2001 at 00:00
The European Year of Languages is the ideal time to broaden our views on the acquisition of language skills, says Teresa Tinsley.

In Finland, they want to persuade Laplanders to learn Russian to boost the tourist trade - after all, why should Russian tourists want to speak English to Finns?

In Italy, they are wrestling with the challenges of teaching Italian to Albanian-speaking refugees - but also teaching Italian children to say "hello" in Albanian. In countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, the focus is on the third language - English is now so widespread it is not even seen as foreign any more. "How do you feel," a Finnish colleague asked me, "that people are learning your language without any interest in your culture?" Although the omnipresence of English is much exaggerated - a recent Eurobarometer survey showed that only 56 per cent of European Union citizens can speak it, and that figure includes native speakers in the United Kingdom and Ireland - it would be foolish not to acknowledge its growing role as a lingua franca.

Even educated people - and as we know, that very often includes teacher colleagues of other subjects - excuse their own monolingualism by pointing to the widespread use of English.

According to Eurobarometer, 74 per cent of people in the UK think that foreign language skills are useful, but sometimes it seems as though we are fighting a losing battle; foreigners are so anxious to practise their English, they do not give us a look-in.

We pluck up the courage to order a drink in French on our summer holiday, and the waiteranswers in English. There is a thirst for language learning in some other countries, which we are lacking. The Easter holidays will soon be here, bringing the annual influx of "Euroyouth" into our towns and cities. More and more French, Belgians, Spanish and Swedes are taking advantage of mobility across Europe in higher education, and signing up to courses in the UK. Get a British degree and become fluent in another language at the same time. How many British students can to take this opportunity in the other direction?

The same thing is happening in the jobs market. Increasingly, hotels, airports, call centres - and, yes, schools in search of modern languages teachers - are employing Europeans from other countries, because they are fluent in another language. The expansion of English is boosting multilingualism across Europe, not working against it, and we are in danger of being left behind.

So let us use the European Year of Languages to tell our colleagues, our communities, our governing bodies, and above all our pupils, just how much language learning really matters.

Teresa Tinsley is programme manager at the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and ResearchEurobarometer surveys are conducted twice a year on behalf of the European Commission in all EU countries. A summary of the recent Europeans and Languages report can be downloaded from: European Year of Languages was launched in Lund, Sweden, on February 19-21. CILT is acting as UK national co-ordinator. Web:

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