The truth about Brits is that we don’t speak a second language. Why would we? We’re English. It’s the international language, you know.
This same-old attitude of ‘don’t need to, so what’s the point?’ has always been the general attitude of us Brits, leaving us trailing behind our European counterparts. In fact, the reality of languages in our universities is that barely anybody wants to study them. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) found that between the years 2007/08 and 2013/14, undergrads for modern foreign languages decreased by 16 per cent. Studying linguists are dying out.
And how can we expect any less when the problem stems much further back in our education system? It all begins in our primary schools, where, according to Language Trends 2013/14 by Kathryn Board OBE and Teresa Tinsley under the British Council, ‘nearly half (46 per cent) of primary schools have no contact at all with language specialists in their local secondary schools’. This means that language learning from a young age has many tight limitations, and many of those teaching the languages have no real language qualifications at all.
This issue is only worsened by the fact that ‘[27 per cent] of state secondary schools can ensure that pupils coming into Year 7 are able to continue with the same language they learned in primary school’, meaning that many of the few skills that are acquired often come to no continuation. Moving into secondary school, it was stated that the number of schools that don’t offer any foreign language is ‘growing’, whilst due to the process of disapplication, ‘many lower-ability pupils do not learn a foreign language at all’. In our colleges, the British Council document describes a ‘deep crisis of language study post-16’.
In this respect, it’s clear that there’s not only an issue in our cultural mindset as Brits, but, in actuality, this issue is deeply rooted in the education system. In fact, from when we are young, this issue is unavoidable. Not only do we hardly teach languages, but we teach them relatively badly, unstably, and with little support. We seem to take away whatever opportunities British students are left with. Colleges are removing it from their curriculum and students are seemingly left with other subjects being an easier and ultimately more viable option.
As we see this issue flower into cultural ignorance, I have watched this issue become more prominent as a growing linguist. I remember meeting a German-speaking taxi driver on my way home one evening. As we chatted away in our mutually shared second language, he stopped and told me that I was the first English passenger he had ever had who had spoken one of his four second languages in his many years in his job. Furthermore, the desperate employment of Brits with a second language says a lot. There are not enough linguists, and the working world is ready for many more.
I know what you’re thinking. I get that English is the core language of social media for many companies, the core language for many sports and brands, as well as the first second language that many other countries decide to learn. I also understand that you can survive your entire life monolingual. But I’m not saying that languages are crucial and an absolute necessity for Brits. What I am saying is that it’s not about that. In fact, it’s about so much more.
It’s about creating friendships built entirely on a shared second language. It’s about being able to make that small talk, instead of standing silently in the lift. It’s about being able to experience a place, in a way that’s very different when you speak the native language. We also know that studies suggest that being bilingual is good for our brains. According to Medical Daily, speaking a second language ‘[helps] delay the onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia’, as well as bettering many other mental tasks. I’m not saying that we have to fix this ‘deep crisis’ for crucial reasons, I’m saying that we have to fix this, because if we don’t, we’re really missing out.