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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 September 2006, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
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Britons are the worst in Europe at learning languages, says the EU

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is to spend 4.5m on a drive to encourage more students to take up languages, after a drop in undergraduate numbers.

Meanwhile, ministers are said to be reconsidering their decision to drop compulsory language lessons for England's GCSE students after the numbers of pupils taking qualifications in French and German plummeted.

So just why are we so bad at learning another lingo? And do Britons really deserve their bad image abroad?

Well, yes, according to figures compiled by the European Union.

When it comes to speaking a second language, the UK population is nearly always bottom of the class.

According to figures based on 2005 research for EU countries, only Hungary lags behind the Brits when it comes to speaking another language.

Just 30% of Britons speak a second language - compared with 99% of Luxembourgers; 91% of Dutch; 88% of Danish and 45% of French.

49% of office workers know how to say 'How are you?' in French
33% could ask for the bill in Spanish
19% know the word for airport in Spanish
9% can count above 20 in another language
* Office Angels research of 1,500 office workers, 2005

Experts blame a misplaced belief that "everyone else" speaks English, while in the past - as an island-nation - we have not been exposed to other languages like countries with land borders.

'Small world'

But Isabella Moore, director of the National Centre for Learning Languages (Cilt) said times had changed. The world is getting smaller.

"Today's economy is global and more and more jobs have an international dimension. Unless our young people are equipped with the skills they need for international communication in the 21st Century we will be a poor player on the world stage," she said.

"The idea that English is enough is looking increasingly old-fashioned and arrogant - and it doesn't lead to good business."

Indeed, according to recruitment agency Office Angels, for 53% of employers a second language can be the difference between offering a job and not.

Manchester, London and Edinburgh have the most foreign-language speakers
More women than men speak a second language
Women tend to speak one language to a higher level, while men speak a smattering of several languages

The languages they are most looking for are French, Spanish, Japanese, Italian and, increasingly, Chinese.

"We have seen a sharp rise in employers asking for people who have language skills over the last five years," said Paul Jacobs, managing director.

"We are increasingly finding that even people with a second language at a basic level have better prospects in some industries working at home and abroad than those without," he said.

But problems highlighted have been the lack of language provision in schools and elsewhere over the years.

Children here are giving the option of learning their first language in the curriculum by 11, compared with seven years old in Sweden and Norway.

And while more than 70% of Britons say they studied languages at school, nearly all admit to British reserve, being unwilling to practise their skill and letting their language lapse.

Universities in languages drive
26 Sep 06 |  Education
Fear over poor UK language skills
14 Apr 05 |  Education
115m to boost language learning
11 Mar 05 |  Education
Languages in schools 'in decline'
28 Feb 05 |  Education


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