As a whole, the British population are lazy and consistently exhibit a laissez-faire attitude towards learning languages, argues Alice Macfarlane
Us Brits love a bit of foreign culture. We love to travel to hot countries, stay in exotic all-inclusive hotels and spend all day on the beach. We love eating their food and exploring European cities, and most importantly, we love spending all of our retirement money on a swanky new villa in Spain. But there remains to be one huge aspect of foreign culture that British people aren’t all that crazy about: languages.
If I told you that 62% of British people are unable to communicate in any other languages apart from English, you might initially be quite shocked. But take a moment to think back to all the times you have been on holiday, staring blankly – for an awkwardly long amount of time – at someone speaking their own language, until they finally say those magic words: ‘Oh, you’re English.’ Suddenly that statistic doesn’t seem quite so surprising.
The fact is that British people, for the most part, are uninspired, uninterested, and quite frankly lazy when it comes to learning languages. But this lack of interest isn’t exclusive to students, it is an attitude that has been ingrained into every aspect of our society, particularly state school education.
I have been aware from a young age that languages were near the bottom of the pile when it came to education, when just myself and two others attended the weekly French class ran by my primary school. Moving forward to secondary school, and I’m quite certain that anybody reading this who took a foreign language for GCSE, knows that the grade on your little piece of paper doesn’t quite reflect your actual competence of the language. Nevertheless, at least you came out of it with the invaluable skill of being able to tell someone how you earned your pocket money last weekend.
A-levels told a similar story with my French class being comprised of a total of just three students. Fast forward another two years and my younger brother was unintentionally treated to one-to-one French tutoring, after becoming the only person in his entire year group to choose a language at A-level. This may be an account of my personal experience with language learning, but the narrative I just described is far from unusual.
So why are languages so neglected here in the UK? I suppose it comes down to a question of necessity. In a fortunate turn of events, the language that developed on our tiny little island has somehow managed to become the lingua franca of the world. One of the most global languages, English is spoken in just over one hundred different countries, dominating the internet, publishing and film industries. British people have an advantage like no other when it comes to having English as their native tongue and this has simply squandered interest in learning foreign languages. State schools and universities face continual budget cuts and languages are almost always the first to be hit.
Moreover, with more importance being placed on subjects such as maths and sciences, the number of students choosing to study languages has faced an ongoing, steep decline since the 1990s, with languages such as German decreasing by a worrying 45% since 2010.
These statistics paint a rather bleak picture for the future of modern languages in Britain. Since embarking on my year abroad, I have met Erasmus students from all over Europe, and it didn’t take me long to realise the vast differences in both the value and teaching of languages between us and our European cousins. Committed to learning multiple languages from a young age, I couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed of my comparatively slow progress in French. I myself am far from multilingual, and I only speak two languages, yet being able to speak just one other language besides English still puts me very much in the minority.
Of course, if it were simply a question of necessity, then it may be easy to adopt this laissez-faire attitude, but the importance of learning foreign languages cannot be overstated. Not only does it improve your cognitive skills, academic performance and employability. But, the ability to communicate with people around the world and immerse yourself in other cultures is incredibly rewarding, improving your confidence and your connections with others. In the words of Frank Smith, ‘one language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.’