Europe and the English language

Student Life

“Is there anyone from Germany in the audience?” Comedian Henning Wehn asked as he opened his set. After several minutes of incomprehensible German conversation whilst the rest of us sat dumbfounded and confused he abruptly stopped. “Oh, sorry, I’m just doing what you Brits do on holiday.” The theatre was filled with awkward laughter as we were forcefully reminded of our unfortunate reputation for butchering the language in almost every foreign country we visit. But Wehn does, in fact, raise a serious point. Why is it that the British have such a have such a hard time learning foreign languages? 

One answer to this question probably dates all the way back to World War One when English became commonly used as the “lingua franca” – the language adopted as a common language by speakers of different native tongues – of Europe, if not of the whole world. Even today, there are more users of English as a first or second language than of any other language. It is therefore quite obvious why large numbers of native speakers don’t feel any great urgency to acquire another language. Professor Pamela Moores of Aston University, explains that our “Anglophone complacency is intact and deeply entrenched” and it just takes a trip across the channel to gain first-hand experience of this. Whilst on holiday this summer in Southern France, I embarrassedly watched young British friends asking a non-English speaking ticket seller for “two adults”, despite the fact that they were almost certainly taught how to say “deux adultes” during GCSE French.

Why is it that the British have such a hard time learning foreign languages?

The statistics equally show that language study in England is also almost constantly in decline; yet again in 2013 they didn’t manage to make it into the Top-10 most studied GCSE subjects. Although whilst, more optimistically, slightly more students chose to take Spanish, fewer took both French and German, despite these being the languages spoken by two of our biggest trade partners. What is even more worrying, however, is that fact that so few students decide to study languages post-16. Last year, just 1 in 10 of the students who studied GCSE French continued it through to A-level, with the overall A-level numbers for 2014 showing a huge 7.4% reduction for French, 1.3% for German and 0.7% for Spanish. The reasoning for this perhaps includes the difficulty of obtaining A* grades and students consequent fear that they won’t meet university requirements if they opt to study a language. In 2013, 8.4% of Physics, Chemistry and Biology grades achieved were at A*, while just 6.9% of French, German and Spanish were. This raises the question; why study a subject that is going to reward you more harshly for your efforts?

Dr. Ben Bollig, Fellow and tutor in Spanish at St. Catherine’s College, explains that one of the principle reasons why English students don’t feel inclined to study languages at school is as a result of a lack of language contact from an early age. He says that, in contrast to our more multilingual neighbours, primary school children are barely taught foreign languages. I had laughed at the futility of trying to teach Spanish-speaking three year-olds English vocabulary in Peru this summer, mostly by jumping up and down singing “Three little monkeys jumping on the bed…”, but it is clear from countries like Belgium where children are taught English from an equally young age that it is this early contact which really fosters a lifelong understanding of the importance of other languages.

The consequences of our monolingualism are numerous. According to the Confederation of British Industry the UK is held back by a lack of language skills, which are clearly crucial to doing business abroad and act as a tax on UK trade. In fact, James Foreman-Peck of Cardiff Business School has estimated that the language deficit in Britain costs the economy £48 billion each year. According to the website ‘Languages Work’, which aims to encourage careers using languages, 74% of employers are looking to employ people with conversational language skills, and up to a quarter of firms may have lost business due to a lack of foreign language knowledge. Customers addressed in their mother tongue are much more likely to do business with you, for as Nelson Mandela famously said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” However, the advantages of knowing a foreign language aren’t all economic. Dr. Bollig explains that it opens up a whole other culture and enables us to talk to, read literature from, and understand an entirely different community.

So unless we want to carry on being the butt of a joke made by a nation infamous for having no sense of humour, it’s probably time we started learning some foreign languages.

PHOTO/Börkur Sigurbjörnsson