“English Is Not Enough: Improved Linguistic Skills Vital For The UK’s Role In The Global Economy”:

How many languages do you speak?  According to the British Council (BC), if you are from any European Union (EU) country (apart from the UK), you are among the 56% who are reasonably fluent in at least one in addition to your own, perhaps two (28%) and possibly even three or more (11%). These statistics, however, do not appear to apply to Britain. A survey conducted by the European Commission (as quoted by the BC) has indicated that for 62% of people in the UK, English is their only language, 38% speak one other (often that  of their “ethnic or immigrant community” – for example, Urdu, Punjabi or Polish), 18% are fluent in two extra and 6% in three.

Furthermore, although “51% of EU citizens can have a conversation in English”, this is not reciprocated in Britain, where “learning a foreign language is not a popular option in the country’s schools and universities”. As the “British Academy for the Humanities & Social Sciences” has pointed out in its “Born Global” booklet published on 17th October – there are now far fewer candidates for GSCE “A” levels in French and German than twenty years ago – though it acknowledges that this is partly due to the increasing popularity of courses in Spanish (Aranxa Sanchis, “El Iberico” Edition 110).

In the opinion of the “All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages” (APPG)”, sustained action is urgently required across the UK “to reverse the growing tendency for language learning to be the preserve of an intellectual or affluent elite”. In its “Manifesto For Languages”, the APPG has asserted that “In the 21st century, speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English” and that, unless there are drastic improvements in the UK’s national capacity in modern languages, “the country’s economy will suffer as British firms are held back from trading across the world and our young people will lose out in the global jobs market”.

The APPG Manifesto was distributed during the British Academy’s symposium on this topic at London’s Olympia Conference Centre on 17th October, coinciding with the “Language Show Live “(17th-19th October) at the same location and organised in partnership with “The Guardian” newspaper. The British Academy’s Principal Researcher, Bernadette Holmes, noted in her “keynote speech” that language learning is currently compulsory in only 16% of state schools compared to 69% in private ones – leading to a “vast gulf” between the two sectors which needs to be reduced. A policy of “languages for all pupils up to at least the age of 16” (she declared) should be included in the manifestos of the main political parties in the period leading up to the next General Election on 7th May 2015”. She is concerned that “Britain’s national security, defence, diplomacy, its place and reputation on the international stage are all at risk of being undermined by our lack of language skills”.

Moreover, although the UK accounts for 12% of the EU’s population, “it only comprises 4% of the officials in the EU civil service – precisely the people making the decisions and exerting influence”. That’s because “we don’t have enough graduates who can work in (for example) French and German as well as English.” This is also the reason (she believes) for the shortage of English native speakers doing interpreting and translating work in Brussels and at the United Nations in New York: “Our civil servants must be upskilled so they can compete with their opposite numbers from other EU countries”.

Holmes laments the fact that “45 UK universities have scrapped modern language degrees, because (so they say) they can’t run them if they’re not getting enough applicants”. Her solution is for the Government to implement “a more realistic funding mode so that market forces don’t kill off any more of these courses”. Languages, she insists, “shouldn’t just be a footnote at the bottom of the political parties’ education proposals.

In its “Talk The Talk” brochure, the British Academy featured the comment by Willy Brandt (a former German Chancellor) that “If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. But if I’m buying, dann mussen sie Deutsch sprechen (you must speak German)”. The Academy’s “State Of The Nation” report emphasized that the “new economic realities“ mean UK businesses must acquire expertise in a much wider range of languages, including Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, Turkish, Farsi and Polish: “Evidence linking language skills to better business performance and the ability to access new markets is strong. Employers have made it clear that they want to see more people come into the workforce with at least a basic knowledge of foreign languages along with a more globally-attuned mind-set”.

It was thus extremely encouraging that  there were 9,000 advance registrations for the Language Show Live. Most of the visitors were teachers, learners, language professionals, school-children and business personnel, although a large number of “walk-ins” were also anticipated.  It was (stated the Event Manager, Olivett Asare) a “truly global occasion with 160 exhibitors from 17 countries”. The Spanish contingent was clearly the largest, among them: The “Don Quijote” organisation (courses around Spain & in many Latin American countries), “Tia Tula (Salamanca) “Dilo” (Mallorca) ,the Etzepore Basque Institute (San Sebastian), the “Academia Pradoventura” and the “Colegio Lajanda” (both in the Cadiz area) had all rented stands – but so had the Aljazeera Media Network (whose staff were offering impromptu tuition in Arabic), the Confucius Institute (Beijing), “Learn Italian in Tuscany”, The Turkish Cultural Centre and the Fukuoka Foreign Language College (Japan), as well as a large number of ELT (English Language Tuition) providers. The smallest stand was probably the one occupied the “Simon Bolivar Spanish School” (Quito, Ecuador) at price of £700 for the three days. Their solitary representative agreed that the main deterrent for potential students was the cost of getting there, not their modest enrolment fees.

Filed under: Society | Posted on October 24th, 2014 by Colin D Gordon

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