Why aren't British people learning more languages?

  • 04/03/2019
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John Worne recently wrote that “Language learning is vital for the UK’s future prosperity and global standing. Languages are essential for our trade, prosperity, cultural exports, diplomacy and national security.” So why are language courses taken at university and college on the decline in Britain? There may be a number of reasons.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, you have to look at British history. At its peak, the British Empire had colonies on every single continent other than Antarctica, some of which had been in place for centuries. This would leave a lasting legacy on many cultures throughout the world, and meant that the use of the English language would become widespread or at least familiar to most places on Earth. Because of this, English has become the de facto language for international business, science, technology, politics and other sectors. The tourism industry also uses the English language quite heavily, and the rise of technology such as google translate and other software programmes contribute as well. So when you add these points up and the decline in students taking higher-education language courses, it suggest that Britain may be resting on our (linguistic) laurels; and for a while you could argue it was forgivable, particularly in the 90’s and early 2000’s when America was the sole super-power in the world, however things are less clear cut now. The world is becoming a smaller place, and the rise of the Asian markets are changing the global landscape.

There needs to be a fresh impetus on learning languages in Britain, particularly amongst young people. The jobs market is a fiercely competitive place, and the skill of languages can be the edge over your opponent; for example a financial advisor who can speak Mandarin will be more in demand than a monolingual one. Moreover, learning a language is the doorway to a new culture and way of life so an open mind towards these aspects are always needed, particularly now in light of recent events. So what can we do? There are suggestions of teaching children languages early in their education, which would make sense as younger brains are known to find it easier to learn languages, but perhaps a culture change is what is needed most; while it becomes more apparent where Britain stands amongst the world powers, it doesn’t mean we should recede into ourselves, in fact the call for multilingualism has never been stronger. 

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