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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 July 2006, 10:32 GMT 11:32 UK
Language learning kicks off
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine


The World Cup, holiday homes and budget airlines are feeding an unexpected passion for learning languages.

Rubbish at learning modern languages? Are you still shouting in English at bemused people in other countries? That used to be the stereotype of the English-speaker abroad.

But is that all changing? Because this heatwave summer seems to be bringing a boom in language learning.

Language courses are reporting a surge in demand, newspapers have been giving away language-teaching CDs and language learning is the theme of BBC2's latest reality TV show, Excuse My French.


So what's encouraged us out of our monoglot shells? And are languages really reaching the parts that they couldn't previously reach?

There could be something of a World Cup factor here - with the football fest in Germany making a very positive impression on the hundreds of thousands of England fans who went over.

Football fans might not be considered natural territory for language lessons. But before the competition, England football fans were offered a crash-course in learning a few German phrases - and this really does seem to have been an ice-breaker.

World Cup
The World Cup was a multi-lingual success story
"It made a huge difference - particularly when fans saw the impact on ordinary people in Germany of being able to say hello or good evening in their language," says Mark Perryman, organiser of the Englandfans supporters' club in London, who took part in these lessons.

"It helped to break down barriers and it broke down the stereotypes about England fans. There's an assumption that the English, let alone football fans, would never learn a language."

Travelling fans were also impressed by how well so many Germans could speak English, he says. And it even created some multi-lingual bantering.

The Germans were singing "football's coming home" in English and the England fans learned how to sing it back in German, said Mr Perryman.

The language lessons for fans were set up by the Goethe Institute, (the German equivalent of the British Council) - and institute spokesman, Oliver Benjamin, says that this summer's German courses are fully booked.

Global village

"There's definitely been an increase in interest in learning more about the language and culture - and it's much more of a younger audience," he says.

"The World Cup has made our work a hell of a lot easier," says Mr Benjamin.

And he says the longstanding resistance to learning languages is being diminished. There had been an "island mentality and a certain arrogance that English is the world language".

But this is changing, he says, not least because the UK is part of a globalised, multilingual world. In London, only 57% of the population speaks English as a first language, he says. It's no longer unusual for people to move between languages.

People are mixing more, seeing the ways other people do things
Peter Daykin
It makes a change to hear optimistic news about modern language learning. University language departments have been closing because of a lack of students - and this in turn reflects how few pupils are taking languages at A-level.

And there have been repeated warnings from industry about the economic cost of our national deficit in language skills.

But rather than an academic or business interest, another driver for the current interest in learning languages is the unprecedented appetite for travel.

This weekend, at the start of the summer holidays, more than two million people flew out from UK airports. And it's no longer just package holidays and tourist resorts - people are exploring more independently and further a field.

Second home, second language

It might not make headlines, but this is a significant social change, with more people than ever getting a taste of other places, cultures and languages.

"With budget airlines and cheaper travel, people are mixing more, seeing the ways other people do things. There are loads of lads I know from places like Sunderland who fetch up in all kinds of places in a way they never would have done before," says Peter Daykin, a spokesman for the Football Supporters' Federation (FSF).

"People are now going abroad for a weekend to places like the Czech Republic, which once would have been unheard of," he says.

There are almost 257,000 UK-owned overseas holiday homes

Mr Daykin was another visitor to the World Cup who left with a sense that the journey through Germany had been a very "positive experience" for fans - a long way from the negative stereotypes of the English as suspicious, tongue-tied travellers.

People aren't only travelling abroad, they're now taking their property mania with them. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are now almost 257,000 overseas holiday homes owned by people in the UK.

And the Institut Francais, which promotes French language and culture, says that second-homers are part of the growing demand for language lessons.

Francis Hetroy, director of languages at the institute, says that demand for French courses has risen by about 15% to 20% on last year, when there were about 7,000 students. And this includes very popular language courses offered in how to buy a property in France, he says.

Learning a language? Royaume Uni, douze points.

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