A number of recent articles in the UK and US press point to a lively interest in foreign language learning and teaching that isn’t necessarily reflected in our school pupils’ language uptake. Some of those articles are listed here:
Foreign language study vital to U.S. students by Gene A. Budig (a former president of three major US universities and the past president of Major League Baseball’s American League)
Let’s Stop Being the Butt of the Foreign Language Joke by Don Tennant (technology journalist)
Meeting the nation’s Critical Needs by Haley White (columnist with The Daily Princetonian)
Fancy learning French from a footballer? by Stephanie Sparrow (the Guardian)
More languages on the menu in schools by Steve McCormack (The Independent)
Languages crisis is threatening a generation of state school pupils by Nicola Woolcock (The Times)
Britain facing humiliating decline in foreign languages, says peer by Nicola Woolcock (The Times) and featuring comments by Lady Coussins, a Cambridge modern languages graduate who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages
Are we heading towards a language crisis in our schools? by Angela McLachlan (course leader for primary languages at Manchester University’s School of Education, who is conducting a three-year study into the impact of primary languages on GCSE uptake)
Parlez vous any other language at all? by The Times Home and Foreign Staff.
For those of you with not enough time to read the articles, I’ve tried to summarise the main points. Here they are:
- The job market is becoming increasingly competitive and globalised (more than 300 million Chinese students are learning English, with 100,000 of them studying in America).
- Language learning gives kids an extra string to their career bows. This applies to kids opting for just about any discipline: from law, economics or fine art to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the STEM disciplines).
- Employers are diversifying their workforce to appeal to broader consumer segments. With two equally qualified candidates, 50% of employers (in a US survey) would be more inclined to hire the bilingual candidate. More attractive jobs require bilingual skills, a trend that is certain to increase.
- It is becoming increasingly important for government employees, intelligence analysts and soldiers to speak foreign languages. The U.S. State Department offers Americans large incentives to learn “Super Critical Needs Languages”. Students with high-demand languages enjoy advantages when applying for government positions.
- Language learning enhances young people’s communication skills and gives them a real appreciation of the essence of language. It helps them express themselves better in their own language. And it helps to develop other important learning areas, such as memory function, abstract thinking and the ability to understand the communication needs of other people.
- We’re handicapping our young people if we fail to prepare them with the international perspective and globally oriented skill set that they’ll need to succeed. We need to help kids understand that having a second language will open doors that otherwise would remain closed to them.
- Young people often don’t see the relevance of language learning.
- Innovative and imaginative teaching methods can sparks kids’ interest in languages.
- Foreign language study is widely seen as an unaffordable luxury. Britain and the US are accused of having a dismissive and short-sighted attitude to languages.
- The message being sent to our kids is that having a second language is inconsequential. A generation of school children risks being left monolingual because of a looming crisis in language teaching.
- Every pupil should learn languages until the age of 16, not necessarily at a specialised level. We need people with conversational ability: police officers, hotel receptionists, transport workers (and, to judge from the “Parlez-vous” article, telephone operators working for public bodies).
- Britain is sliding towards a “humiliating decline” in its contribution to world affairs because of dwindling foreign language teaching.
- The US and the UK require skills to communicate in other languages and cultures, the ability to talk and work with peers in all areas of international importance.
- Neither the US nor the UK can compete if they cannot communicate.
I think language teachers do a great job but struggle to get their message across to pupils who are too young and inexperienced to see the point of learning French verbs and vocabulary. Educational outreach is one way for language professionals to help, by giving kids real-life examples of people who earn their living from and love working with languages (on which point, see – and vote in – our job satisfaction poll).
I’ll be writing in later posts about ways in which language professionals (translators, web-editors, journalists, copywriters… people working with their own, just as much as with foreign, languages) can collaborate with schools to promote language learning. It needn’t take up much time, and those beleaguered language teachers will greatly appreciate the effort.
By Marian Dougan