The Importance of Language Skills

In a recent report the British Council warned that a post-Brexit Britain will need more rather than fewer language skills. ‘Language skills must be a priority’ – the headline trumpets. Yes, must, but it won’t (thanks to Sunny Singh for the Tweet which inspired this!). I’ve seen this time and again – and there are many reasons for the lack of interest in other languages.

  1. Those of us who come from ‘little’ cultures with lesser-known languages know all too well that English has become the universal language of business and even tourism to some extent. What’s the point of learning to say a few stuttering words in Polish or Japanese or Spanish when everyone is eager to practise their English on you anyway?
  2. English is easier to learn (or at least the basic Global English which passes for English on the international scene) than many other languages: relatively simple grammar even if you don’t quite master when to use the present participle or the past tense. And you can get by on a reduced vocabulary. As for spelling – well, many native English speakers don’t spell all that well – and what are spellcheckers for, anyway?
  3. Americans and Brits have dominated world politics and economics for the past 100-200 years, so everyone aspires to move over here and integrate into this culture and language. And if they don’t, shame on them, how dare they keep there stoopid backward traditions? Haven’t they seen how well integrated our British expats are in other societies?
  4. Everyone else is far away and pointlessly complicated. We’ve got enough things to worry about over here. If they really want to communicate with us, they should learn our language and tell us what they need/want/how they plan to invest in our country and make our economy great again.
  5. People keep saying how useful languages can be for your careers, but I can prove them wrong. Although people always say how impressive my array of languages is, they never ever hired or promoted me because of them. They gave me all the crummy jobs that no one else wanted because of them, put me in impossible situations to restore confidence in a relationship they had already destroyed through lack of cultural sensitivity and then blamed me when it didn’t go according to their myopic plan.
From TES.

So is there one thing that might tempt Brits to learn another language? Well, my older son has a theory about why English footballers fail to live up to their youthful promise. They don’t get much chance to play in the Premier League as they become adults, because of all the foreign players who do speak some English and are willing to relocate. And the English players are reluctant to move abroad and gain experience in other leagues, because they lack the language skills.

Of course, not all of us had the opportunity to learn languages at school (and the way they are taught and the lack of teachers or high standards is another matter). But we can at least remain curious and open towards other cultures, read as much as we can in translation, ask questions, familiarise ourselves with world history and geography… But no, I was shocked to see that children from the age of 13 can opt out of history, geography and any languages other than English for their GCSE. They can study PE, food tech, photography and business studies instead – all very nice in themselves, but lacking the international perspective (at least in what they cover). No wonder we have insular Britain!

Finally, the secret spy part of me would like to know what other colleagues are whispering about me and the organisation in the corridors. The number of times I’ve heard German, French, Japanese, Romanian colleagues grumble about things in their own language sotto voce… and their American masters are none the wiser.

I suppose the only solution is for the Brits to retaliate with their ‘hmmm, such an interesting concept’ = ‘that’s a load of bollocks’.

British expats in Spain, from IB Times UK.


22 thoughts on “The Importance of Language Skills”

  1. An interesting post although I’m afraid to say I fall into the camp of having huge admiration for those who speak other languages whilst failing miserably. I did learn French and German at school and while I’d like to think I’m not stupid despite enormous effort I really struggled. I have a theory that because we weren’t formally taught English grammar it was harder when the language teachers referred to these terms to be put into practice but perhaps my brain simply isn’t wired the right way 😊

    1. Some people are naturally more quick to pick up languages than others. I remember trying to coach my cousin in French when she had exams at university and she just couldn’t remember any vocabulary at all, although Romanian is quite close to French. I think a basic understanding of what grammar means, as well as how it works (rather than just endless rote learning) would be helpful. My sons did say they were surprised that their classmates have no knowledge of their own English grammar (but then the French school are very pernickety about those things).

  2. I’d echo Cleo on the teaching of languages in British schools, at least when I was a child quite some time ago. I learned grammar through Latin which was also helpful with vocabularly in some other languages. I think those who think that the predominace of the English language reflects our standing in the world might do well to remember that it’s America rather than us that has influenced its spread as a global language in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

    1. Certainly the English I hear spoken in most parts of the world nowadays is gleaned from American TV shows, so the vocabulary and the accent can be quite hilarious at times (in a remote mountain village in Romania, for instance, or on the streets of Brazil).

  3. I do agree in theory, but I doubt we’ll change. And I hate to say it but we do already speak what has become the world language of business, science, etc., so there’s not a lot of incentive. Maybe it’ll change if China takes over as the leader of the world. To be honest, I’m more concerned that history isn’t compulsory than that languages aren’t.

    1. It’s not just the language per se, it’s about cultural sensitivity and curiosity (and I don’t mean rattling off all the religious festivals, which is what my YS has been doing in Religious Studies). There are so many fascinating facts about language groups/families, about the origin of words, about differences in nuance between languages… So much could be done to make this a thrilling topic!

  4. To me, learning other languages is a critical part of being a member of society, Marina Sofia. One doesn’t have to be thoroughly fluent in six languages, but being able to communicate effectively in more than one is so important. It’s not just a matter, either, of learning how to say, ‘Do you know if there’s a bookshop nearby’ in another language. It’s learning about the culture. Each language encodes and transmits culture; so, as we learn language, we learn a way of thinking, a mindset, etc..

    Unfortunately, as you say, the teaching of other languages is a bit issue. I’ve thought about it, written about, and done it for a long time. I won’t drone on here and clutter up your comment space. But you’ve hit a raw nerve there!

    1. Yes, it’s even more about the culture than the language – being receptive to other ideas, other mindsets. You can imagine that as a linguist and anthropologist, I can go on and on about this as well. So I’m glad we are on the same wavelength and please feel free to share some of your written work on these topics with me.

  5. The way languages are taught in schools certainly doesn’t help people speak a language. It’s more about written forms and grammar than oral skills so yes kids can construct a sentence on paper but don’t get enough practical practice to give them the co fidence to say anything in a real setting.

    1. To be fair, they did try to incorporate a lot of spoken language and young people’s interests in the GCSE topics that I was preparing my children for (they had recordings of teenagers from different parts of France talking about their families, their hobbies etc.). But the focus is very much on passing exams. And starting something in Year 7 which you can drop in Year 9… is a bit pointless.

  6. I have many relatives who permanently live abroad and who aren’t a bit interested in learning the respective languages–something I don’t understand at all.

    1. Yep, I know many people like that. And I don’t expect them to become fluent – it’s hard if you learn a language as an adult – but to at least make a bit of an effort.

  7. The attitude to speaking and learning foreign languages in the UK is quite shocking. For a while it was compulsory for secondary kids. It was hard to find teachers, and in the end I think this was a contributory factor to making it voluntary.
    But how short sighted.
    I’m currently attending French lessons myself. It’s a struggle but i love it.

    1. It is much harder learning it as a grown-up. But the more languages you know, the easier it gets. And it’s supposed to be very good for keeping people (and their brains) young and vigorous.

  8. Our approach to language teaching in the UK is shameful. We leave it far too late, too; should start as soon as children learn their native language, if possible, certainly before secondary school. Ignorance of other languages reflects lack of interest in their cultures generally, and British insularity (not the geographical kind)

    1. Yes, the younger the better, I agree. And I too see it not so much as a reflection of lack of language abilities as a lack of interest or of giving them their just due.

  9. I would absolutely *love* to speak several different languages but I’m just too old now – I have tried recently, and failed…. We should most definitely be teaching multiple languages to the young, when their brains are flexible enough to do this.

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