Language learning in Britain can’t be fixed with education

11 Aug 2019

The stereotypes are well worn, but still hold a kernel of truth. The archetypical Brit always finds it easier to shout slowly and make deranged hand gestures at hapless foreigners than actually any of learn the language of the country they are holidaying in. 


Whether or not that particular image is fair, the statistics make for grim reading nonetheless. The UK was dead last in language competency out of the EU28 in 2016, and remarkably few people feel at least conversationally comfortable in languages other than English. Meanwhile, language take-up in schools, for traditional choices such as French and German, has slumped to record lows, despite France and Germany being two of our closest trading and diplomatic partners. 


Even with upturns in participation in Spanish and Mandarin, commentaries and articles are quick to stick the knife into our language culture: in schools, government, and business. Many put the onus on language learning investment to restart Brits’ passion for languages. The evidence outre-mer, however, suggests that it is much more complicated than that. 


For sure, language learning in schools, both in Europe and further afield, can be much more dynamic than in the UK. For a start, language learning is compulsory in many European countries, with education policies centred around early starts and vocational training in English and other languages. This sometimes even puts native languages under threat. 


In Britain, however, languages have been incentivised by the English Baccalaureate at GCSE level, but have not been compulsory beyond age 14 since 2004. Secondly, many white-collar professions on the Continent, particularly in countries such as Germany, expect candidates to have a good grasp of a second language, incentivising the authorities to pressure educators into introducing languages to schools as soon as possible. 


Such policies in themselves do no harm for keeping foreign languages at the forefront of employment policies. 


But any British language student on their year abroad will know that sinking feeling when they meet foreign students with English skills vastly superior to anything that they could produce in their target language. Even if they can get by, or even have a very fruitful casual conversation with someone, it is hard not to be demoralised when put face-to-face with someone who has the accent, the idioms, the quirks, and the humour all down to a tee. 


We have to remember, however, that many of the students from these countries will have had such a cultural head start over British students that it makes any comparison essentially impossible. 


The cultural pull of the Anglosphere on the rest of the world is irresistible in the fields of literature, music, film, television, and, in recent years, Internet culture.  In countries such as the Netherlands, English-language imported television programming is only subtitled at most, leaving the audio in the original language.


Even in countries like France, with native-language content quotas and a ‘dubbing’ rather than ‘subbing’ culture, citizen access to YouTube and music streaming services has made such policies useless amongst the Internet savvy. The ubiquity of English in young people’s lives, from foreign children’s television imports to American and British culture in media and the Internet, creates an immersive bubble that helps young people reach a level of fluency beyond the classroom. 


Language learning at school merely acts as ways to reinforce what has already been learnt, and provide students with more advanced vocabulary for university and professional life. 


That’s without even considering countries such as India, where multilingualism is as much a fact of life as the multicultural patchwork of the Subcontinent itself. Whilst polyglottery is considered in the West as the stuff of child prodigies, it is entirely normal to speak more than one language.


In the UK, the only comparable example might be the Welsh-speaking communities of North Wales, where concentrations of Welsh speakers are high due to easy access to Welsh-language culture, education, and everyday life. 


This is what much of the United Kingdom (and, indeed, other parts of the Anglosphere) is missing, and a solution for that is far from clear. This is more than simply a case of exposing pupils to languages, and more intuitive ways of learning from a young age, although both would be more than welcome. 


The solution, in as much as one can be formed, would need to be a cohesive meta-strategy from the government that would put foreign languages, and cultures, at the forefront of British cultural life. To replicate what has happened organically in non-English-speaking countries, public broadcasting would need to put more priority on quality foreign-language content from a wide range of audiences and abilities, in the hope that its popularity buoys. 


But then there is the obvious problem: where is the initial demand? Channel 4’s Walter Presents already broadcasts high-quality foreign imports, but most only premiere on their minor channels and on demand. 


Despacito, the summer hit of 2017, was largely an exception rather than the rule. Internet memes such as ‘crazy telenovela lady’, trade on their exotic eccentricity rather than their ability to bring the Spanish language to the masses. Therefore, where the masses have little demand for breaking out of their Anglophone cultural bubble, there is no supply that can raise the next generations of Brits to be more multilingual.


I am not saying that we should give up; better language competency is a skill worth fighting for. But to what extent is throwing resources at education a losing battle when the wider cultural setting puts little weight on anything but English? Brexit Britain stands at a crossroads: is it plugged into the world around it, or does it stand apart?  


In the cultural war between globalism and nativism, it seems hardly likely that vast swathes of people will welcome a foreign language revolution any time soon. But the world will become ever more closely connected no matter the politics and the discourses of the day. In politics, where signs of economic strength such as GDP and growth are so lauded, a long-term ambition of language competency might seem an attractive investment. 


A shame, then, that our times barely look past the end of their own nose. 
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