Compared to other nations, Britain is among the worst language learners. According to a survey by The European Commission, 62% of British people surveyed could not speak any other language apart from English. Only 38% of Britons speak one foreign language, only 18% speak two and a tiny 6% are able to speak 3. This is much lower than the European Union average which shows that 56% of people speak at least one foreign language, 28% speak at least 2, and 11% speak 3 or more.
A huge factor influencing Britain’s monolingual nature is the unpopularity of language learning in school. In UK schools, children generally only start learning languages at 11, and many go on to give up languages entirely by age 14. Research has shown that one of the major influencing factors in this reluctance to study languages is its perception as a ‘difficult subject’. Pupils overwhelmingly believe that it is much more difficult to get a good grade in language subjects when compared to many other subjects viewed as ‘easier’.
Foreign language learning is at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium, with French and German falling the most. BBC analysis shows drops of between 30% and 50% since 2013 in the numbers of students taking languages at GCSE. This is a huge problem for the UK, especially with Brexit looming. Languages are absolutely essential for trade, business and the economy. The cost of poor language skills in the UK has been estimated at up to £48 billion per year or 3.5% of GDP.
There are a few ideas about how best to encourage school children to take an interest in language learning. One such idea is to start much younger, with plans to implement language lessons in schools from age 5. Another idea is to give more options to students for language learning, beyond the traditional French, Spanish or German. The government is now encouraging schools to expand the range of languages taught to include Arabic, Mandarin, and Urdu. Mandarin Chinese is predicted to become the second most popular language learned in UK schools.
In the UK, more than half (58%) of adults wish they hadn’t let language skills learned at schools slip, 77% agree that language skills increase employability, and just over half (53%) regret not making the most of studying languages when they had the chance. It is clear then that a concerted effort must be made to boost language learning in school, so indivuduals, as well as the wider UK economy, don’t live to regret our dismissive attitudes towards languages learning.