Much Needed Language Debate in the House of Lords


House of Lords debate: Modern Languages

On the 3rd December 2010 a motion was brought forward by Baroness Cousins to call attention to the contribution of modern language skills to the UK economy: and to move for papers. Baroness Cousins herself is a language graduate and is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, a group which is supported by CILT (the National Centre for Languages).

The Baroness calls on Michael Worton’s recently published review of modern language provision in English universities which came to the conclusion that unless the decline in language learning is reversed, Britons will become one of the most monolingual peoples in the world which will result in serious consequences for our economy and the country as a whole.

This has already begun to happen. Research from the Association of British Chambers of Commerce showed that 77% of exporting companies that were unable to do business in a foreign language thought that they had lost business because of it, and exporters who used language skills achieved on average 45% more sales. According to Cardiff University’s Business School, the UK economy could potentially be missing out on up to £21 billion a year because of the lack of language skills in the workforce.

So why is this happening?

Much evidence exists that the language needs of employers are not being met. CBI surveys have indicated that 60% of employers are unhappy with the foreign language skills of school leavers and that over 1/3 of UK businesses are resorting to recruiting from overseas rather than from the British pool of prospective employees.

Our European counterparts are reaping the rewards of having a bilingual or multi-lingual population while the UK festers in the doldrums of monolingualism. This all stems from the education system and the language culture of each individual country, an aspect in which the UK and its government have failed to provide enough of to its people. Many European education systems teach children languages from a young age at Primary school and install a language learning culture into their youth. This continues up to University, three times more French, German and Spanish students go on Erasmus-funded placements abroad as part of their degree than British students, giving them a competitive advantage in the worldwide labour market. While these students are taking full advantage of the international opportunities available to them, our own students are finding it increasingly difficult to take advantage if schemes such as Erasmus. Lord Dykes calls for action “Multilingual children in other European countries can speak one, two, three, four foreign languages because they start early. Why do we not do that here?” We need a change of culture.

One major barrier is that our particular culture installs in the majority of us that English is the predominant language across the globe. This train of thought encourages us not to bother with other languages, while in reality, only 6% of the world’s population are native English speakers and 75% speak no English at all, leaving a very large market which is somewhat impenetrable by our UK monolingual businesses. The ideal strategy should be to recognise the fact that English is indeed one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, but also take advantage of the other languages which would enable us as a country to become more competitive in the global marketplace.

There has been a varied response from the educational and professional sectors and government ministers to this predicament which we face. Many view the education system to be the real source of the problem. Some harrowing figures have been released that show just how dramatic the downturn in language learning in schools has been. Only 44 % of pupils took a language GCSE in 2009, compared with 76% in 2000. The number studying French in state schools has fallen by over 30% since 2004 and only 1 in 11 children are now learning German and only 1 in 9 French. These alarming statistics have no doubt been somewhat partly caused by the Government’s ludicrous decision to abolish the compulsory language GCSE in state schools in 2004. Languages have so often been forgotten in favour of other subjects such as Maths, Science, Engineering and Technology which have been part of the STEM initiative. At present French and German are top of the list of languages that employer’s want but as new markets are opening up other languages are coming into the picture such as Mandarin Chinese or Arabic.

The lack of enthusiasm for languages in schools is carrying through to Universities and higher education. A third of modern language departments have closed in the past seven years. An example comes from the University of the West of England (UWE), where student demand is so small that the vice-chancellor is stopping courses in French, Spanish and Chinese studies. The MA in translation remains popular enough to stay running. To soften the blow, a language centre is being created to allow students to take a module in a language with their degree. Despite the importance of emerging economies such as China, the number of students graduating in Chinese remains small. Between 125 – 130 people graduate in single honours Chinese courses, which is an embarrassingly small figure compared to the size of China. Professor Tim Wright of Sheffield University states that Slovenia, with its population of 2 million, has as many students studying Chinese as the UK with its population of between 60 – 70 million. If we are to trade sufficiently with the ‘fastest growing economy in the World’, we must train our young people to speak Chinese.


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