In an increasingly difficult socio-economic climate, the innate imperialist nature of this proud island nation rises to the surface. “Why should I learn another language, the whole world speaks English,” they cry. Foreign migrants are lambasted for their poor command of the local tongue, and the skills gap and struggling labour market are blamed on anyone possible. I strongly believe that a more informed and inclusive attitude to foreign language learning is an important but neglected tool for change. It is far from a miracle cure but if future generations are increasingly multilingual this can only be a positive step. I have never met a narrow-minded polyglot. They do however, tend to have a wealth of skills and experiences to offer.
Unfortunately, this need for language learning is not reflected in the current education system. Since 1998 the number of universities offering specialist language degrees has dropped by 40%. Foreign language GCSEs ceased to be compulsory in 2004, so it is unsurprising that numbers studying foreign language A levels and degrees is in decline. GCSE uptake has shown some recent improvement, but the long path that takes students through the education system and into advanced linguistic proficiency is rarely trodden.
We therefore need to encourage future generations to take up language learning and sell to them its lifelong benefits. Although telling a teenager to study French so he can chat up French women may sounds trivial and patronising, anything that inspires young people to find a passion for language and reap the endless rewards is a positive step. Schools, students and society as a whole need to understand the economic, social and personal benefits of breaking out of our monolingual bubble. Language is at the heart of everything, and the key to unlocking more knowledge, more cultures and one way to improve our monolingual, monotone, shibboleth-fuelled society. Therefore, below are just a handful of reasons, from a serious angle and tongue-in-cheek selling points, for promoting language learning in our education system and beyond.
There are countless benefits beyond merely being able to speak another language
Concrete benefits: Improved communication skills; broad research and analysis skills; the ability to communicate with a wide range of people and cultures; cultural understanding and cultural awareness; an understanding of the history, literature and philosophy of other cultures; a deeper understanding of the history, literature and philosophy of one’s own culture as well as improved understanding of one’s own language.
Bonus selling points: Switching languages is really impressive at parties; the number of people you can speak to and places you can visit grows massively; the elation you feel when you understand something in a foreign language never goes away.
The opportunity to spend a year working or studying abroad as part of a degree
Concrete benefits: Unrivalled life experience that adds a wealth of experience to the CV; having friends and contacts all over the world; the opportunity to learn a language with native speakers.
Bonus selling points: Living abroad for a year can bring great opportunities for cultural exploration, travel and studying or working somewhere new. However, any young linguist not sold by this should watch the film L’Auberge Espanole and may well be sold by the hedonistic escapades of its protagonists on their year abroad.
Concrete benefits: Language graduates are not limited to teaching, translation or interpreting. In an increasingly multinational business world, language skills can set a candidate apart in ANY field. The range of skills mentioned above are only a selection of the skills and experiences that can make a linguist’s CV stand out.
Bonus selling points: Do you need any more?
The solution of language learning in primary schools followed by compulsory language GCSEs and re-instating lost language degrees is of course a little simplistic. With a lack of language graduates, the talent pool of language teachers is shallow. Without excellent language teachers, few will progress to studying languages at degree level. With few progressing to degree level, cash-strapped universities cannot justifying running language degrees. The cycle is endless.
I have no magic solutions, and implementing changes within the education system is far beyond my capabilities, but is it certainly something I’d like Gove et al to think about. Speaking another language can set you apart from the crowd in so many positive ways. Hopefully little by little, more and more people will discover this. Until then, I’ll have to listen to Jonny Hallyday alone.