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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 July, 2004, 08:43 GMT 09:43 UK
Why Britons are 'language barbarians'
by Stephen Robb
BBC News Online

With further evidence this week suggesting the UK is a nation of "language barbarians", BBC News Online asks why - in a global community - Britons are failing to learn the lingo.

Earlier this year the former chief inspector of English schools, Mike Tomlinson, described Britons as "barbarians" when it came to learning foreign languages.

Research published this week, which suggested fewer than one in 10 British workers could speak a foreign language, even to a basic level, appeared to show the accusation was well-founded.

Holidaymakers on the beach
The stereotype has Brits abroad bellowing to be understood
Recruitment firm Office Angels' poll of 1,500 workers found less than 5% could count to 20 in a second language - even though a majority of the respondents said they would like to live abroad.

Some 80% said they thought they could get by at work because "everyone speaks English".

A European Commission survey in 2001 found 65.9% of UK respondents only spoke their native tongue - by far the highest proportion among the EU countries polled.

"A major part of our problem is that English is a world language and we find it easy to manage in other countries and with speakers of other languages," said Linda Parker, director of the Association for Language Learning.


She said: "We live on an island and are not as aware of other languages as those in countries where there are many other languages on their borders.

"We don't live in a language-learning culture and we rely on other people learning our language rather than making the effort ourselves."

But she estimated that Britain was "no better or worse" than other predominantly English-speaking countries.

Optional study

The situation looks set to worsen from the autumn though, when languages will no longer be compulsory from age 14 in English schools.

The younger that people start learning a language the easier it can become
A Department for Education and Skills spokesman
"Our education system in recent years has not favoured language learning, with curriculum time for languages being reduced and fewer opportunities in school to learn a second foreign language in addition to the usual French," Ms Parker said.

The University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) said that, with the exception of Spanish courses, numbers of university language students were already falling.

This latest move was "expected to lead to a further decline", said UCML chairman Roger Woods.

"Universities are aware of the problem and are not sitting on their hands and waiting to see how many candidates turn up to study languages," Mr Woods said.

He said efforts included open days, running schemes with schools, and developing capacity to train primary school teachers to teach languages - to tie in with the government's National Languages Strategy.

German campaign

Four years ago British universities appealed to the Goethe Institute, which promotes German culture worldwide, for help in stemming a dramatic decline in learning German.

The institute's marketing director, Karl Pfeiffer, said: "The numbers were dropping fast. They came to us and said, 'We have got to work together on this.' That was when we thought we really have to have a focused campaign.

Martin Linton MP
Labour's Martin Linton topped a poll of MPs, speaking six languages
"Languages, and German in particular, were very weak in the UK. All the languages seem to suffer from the problem that language in general is seen to be not that essential."

The Learn German campaign launched in 2002, run jointly with British universities and other German organisations, and sent tens of thousands of postcards and posters promoting the language to UK schools.

The Goethe Institute is now running seminars in schools to help teachers promote the subject to headteachers and others making funding decisions.

"It wasn't a thing where we were hoping to see changes overnight. We would like to know what is going to happen in schools and if there is going to be an increase out there, but I think we will have to wait a few years for that," Mr Pfeiffer said.

National strategy

Although language study is becoming optional from 14, the government's spending on its National Languages Strategy is to rise to 10m a year by 2005-6.

Companies are starting to understand that they are losing business by not having foreign language capacity
Roger Woods
Chairman, University Council of Modern Languages
The strategy was launched two years ago to improve teaching, increase numbers studying languages both in education and at work, and to develop a recognition system that would give people credit for language skills.

One target of the strategy is that by the end of the decade every primary school pupil aged seven to 11 will have the chance to learn a foreign language.

A Department for Education and Skills (DfES) spokesman said: "The younger that people start learning a language the easier it can become."

He said: "Languages are important for so many reasons. They help people's employment prospects and their knowledge of the world, supporting global citizenship by breaking down cultural barriers."

Changing attitudes?

Ms Parker said attitudes appeared to be changing, pointing to a 1999 National Institute of Adult Continuing Education survey which found 44% of UK adults would like to learn a foreign language.

Mr Woods said: "Companies are starting to understand that they are losing business by not having foreign language capacity, and in a global economy they are looking to recruit graduates with foreign languages.

"The transferable skills learnt by language graduates - good communication skills, adaptability, ability to operate in other countries - all serve them well in the job market."

Should Britons make more effort to learn foreign languages? Have you struggled to communicate overseas? Have you taken up a language recently? Does learning a language improve international understanding? Share your thoughts here.

Learning a second language isn't just about being able to communicate with a non-English speaker, it also serves as a wonderful mind-opener. After a year or so struggling to get by in a foreign land in a foreign tongue, many people are more willing to be patient with tourists and immigrants in the UK.
David, UK emigrant in Japan

Any truly international individual should have English as their primary non-native tongue. Let's stop giving ourselves a hard time about not speaking Flemish and be real about our history, heritage, and the supremacy of our language.
Robert Billingham, UK

Why should we regard this as a problem if we are all finding it easy to manage? If the majority of the world spoke French as its main language, and if all Hollywood films were in French, I guarantee it would be those countries which spoke French that were being criticised for not learning other languages. If everyone in Britain learns French, what use is that in Spain, Germany, Portugal, Greece, Poland...? English has become the de facto common language, and if we visit these countries we can ALL communicate using one language, rather than having to learn many of them.
Nick Gisburne, UK

At least one European language should be taught in schools and the government should make a choice of which it should be. Our European neighbours have a natural second language to learn - English. When I was at school French was the foreign language learnt, now there are several. Let us make a choice and at least make our children learn one foreign language.
Peter Garrett, UK emigrant in the US

The British are incredibly insular and generally incompetent when it comes to contact with other cultures, not just languages. Apart from anything else it creates a very bad impression - that of boorish, ill-educated barbarians who have never left their small villages.
David, UK emigrant in Spain

The truth of the matter is that English is the most used language in the world. Although we should make an effort to speak "the lingo" when we go abroad, it is far more important to learn maths, science and, heaven forbid, proper English, that learning a second language should be put to the back of the queue.
Matthew Walster, UK

If we have to adopt their money (euros), then they should speak our language. Seems fair to me.
Garry Smith, England

Perhaps if schools taught more than French (yawn!), people would get interested. High schools should broaden their minds, and perhaps teach languages that aren't usually taught (e.g. Swedish, Polish, Portuguese, Greek, Hungarian - all European languages!) to make things a bit more interesting, and more of a challenge.
Ben, Manchester

"Young learners" (isn't that what Labour calls schoolkids these days?) leave our schools unable to spell, or construct coherent sentences, so it is no surprise that they are incapable of learning a second language.
Andy, UK

Languages may get higher profile
21 Jun 04 |  Education
Attitudes to language in Europe
26 Sep 03 |  Europe
UK students lose out on Euro jobs
25 Nov 02 |  Education
Straw regrets lack of languages
27 Aug 02 |  Education
Pupils dropping languages
22 Aug 02 |  Education


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