Whilst the British Education system is world renowned, it
has failed to provide students with an adequate education in foreign languages.
The many benefits of a comprehensive foreign language curriculum have been
ignored and this has had a significant negative impact on Britain and its
In the UK, we lag significantly behind our European neighbours.
The UK is one of the European countries where inhabitants are most unlikely to speak
a second language. A 2012 European Commission report highlighted the massive
disparity that exists in multilingual competency between the UK, where about 9%
of students were considered to be ‘independent users’ of their first foreign
language, and countries such as Sweden where the figure stands at 82%.
Some argue that English has become a ‘lingua franca’ so why
waste time and resources teaching languages when everyone speaks English?
However, this presumptuous position neglects to recognise that even in Europe,
only 38% of people feel they can operate in English and only 20% of the global
population are English speakers. This makes a large portion of the world’s
inhabitants inaccessible to British people and businesses. Approximately £50bn is
lost by the UK annually as a result of lost contracts due to poor foreign
language skills. Job posts are left vacant as businesses cannot fill them with
individuals with sufficient language skills, resulting in lost export
Furthermore, studies show that English only speakers are
actually disadvantaged in situations where English is being used as a second
language by most people in a meeting setting. As monolingual English speakers
are rarely in a situation where they must alter their natural speech patterns,
they find it difficult to adjust their English to be better understood.
Indeed, a Born Global report claimed that over half of SMEs
surveyed believe that monolingual school leavers are at a disadvantage. It
further stated that a majority of mainly senior employees felt that multilingualism
increased their competitiveness for a wider variety of jobs. If the purpose of
school is to prepare children for life after school in the world of employment,
it is surely failing to achieve this as it is not providing students with a valuable
Moreover, the intellectual benefits of multilingualism are
well documented. Speaking more than one language has been associated with
greater multitasking abilities, greater aptitude at problem solving, greater perception
of surroundings and improved decision-making abilities. These skills are vital
to success later in life and it is absurd that schools neglect a subject that clearly
Studies also indicate that there is a link between being multilingual
and delayed onset of dementia. Whilst controlling for a plethora of variables, studies
have shown that speaking two or more languages increases the mean age for first
signs of dementia from 71.4 to 75.5. The benefits of multilingualism are not limited
to employment and the economy but extend to the health and quality of life of Britons.
Recognising that we have failed to provide an adequate
foreign language education, we must now consider how we can improve. Firstly,
we must change the attitude that exists towards the study of languages. The
importance of languages must be elevated to that of English and the STEM
subjects. The benefits of learning languages need to be emphasised to parents
and students so that they are motivated to dedicate time and effort to it.
Exposing students to situations where they themselves have
to identify rules through analysis and collaboration, as opposed to learning through
memorisation, is fundamental to improving their communication skills. Huw
Jarvis, a senior lecturer in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social
Science at the University of Salford argues, “that people learn better when
they struggle to communicate – so that needs to be at the core of the kind of
delivery and the methodology.”
In the long term, we should consider teaching other subjects
in foreign languages. Numerous countries have begun such programs in order to
create an environment where students can practise and improve their fluency on
a regular basis. Practise makes perfect and projects like this have already had
success in countries such as Spain.
Undeniably, the potential benefits of teaching foreign
languages in schools are numerous and varied. However, learning languages does
not only consist of conjugating verbs and memorising vocabulary lists. It is a
journey that teaches individuals the nuances of culture. Increased multilingualism
will make Britain a more open-minded and understanding nation, in addition to
benefitting our economy and preparing our children for the contemporary workplace.