You may not have noticed, but yesterday brought some good news about foreign languages. In fact, it was contained in an article on the education section of the BBC News website that had the not particularly optimistic title ‘Britons “nervous to speak foreign language abroad”‘.
The headline statistic was that “a quarter of British holidaymakers feel nervous at the thought of having to speak the local language when they go abroad”, according to a poll recently carried out for the British Council. The article then continued by mentioning that 40% of respondents were “embarrassed by their language skills”.
Such figures do not make for encouraging reading, especially when taken in conjunction with the declining numbers of school pupils who are studying foreign languages up to the age of 16 or 18 in the UK. However, the article also revealed that, of those questioned in the survey, 65% “thought it was important to learn a few local words or phrases before going abroad”.
This last figure is encouraging given the at times frustrating ‘you don’t need to speak a foreign language if you can speak English’ mentality that is often voiced here in the UK. People who voice such sentiments would do well to remember that it’s estimated that only 7% of the world’s population speak English as their first language and that 75% do not speak any English at all.
What frustrated me most about the BBC News article was that the fact that a quarter of Brits who travel abroad were not confident about using other languages was given considerably less prominence that the fact that almost half (48%) of those polled ‘said they enjoyed trying out their language skills while on holiday’. It’s not just the focus on the negative that annoyed me, it was that there was a positive that was relevant to twice as many of the people who participated in the survey,
Clearly the picture is not entirely rosy when it comes to foreign language skills in the UK, especially given that there are only two countries in Europe where a smaller proportion of people are able to speak more than one foreign language. The fact that many school pupils in the UK do not study a foreign language beyond the age of 14 places us well behind many European countries when it comes to how long our young people have to study languages at school.
However, we also need to work harder to hold up positive examples of people from here in the UK who are using foreign languages and showing what benefits come from doing so. Whilst some of the quotations in the BBC News article had a more nuanced or positive tone than the slant given to the article by its headline, the way in which the headline framed the article placed it within the familiar narrative of Brits lacking language skills or openness to learning languages.
Compared to our European neighbours, we certainly do lack language skills as a nation. But we do need to look for sources of optimism rather than purely beating ourselves up over this. If we continue to bury potentially positive figures about foreign languages within negative rhetoric, we’re hardly going to persuade many people that there is some reason for optimism and inspire people in the UK to improve their foreign language skills. There are lots of figures out there that are not very encouraging when it comes to language skills in the UK, but we need to also seek out the positives.
As a Scot, I was pleased to recently read that this year has seen a 15.2% increase in the number of pupils achieving passes in Higher modern languages (the Scottish equivalent of modern languages A-levels). I uncovered this stat towards the end of an article whose main focus was on this year’s Higher Maths exam pass mark being dropped to 34% due to its apparent level of difficulty.
To see that the Scottish Education Minister Angela Constance had said that ‘students are performing particularly well in English and modern languages’ was music to my ears. And this wasn’t just because English and French were the two subjects at which I did best as a school pupil back in St. Andrews.
Within stories about education in the ‘British’ media, the focus is almost always on England, or at a push England and Wales. It is regrettable that much reporting in media outlets that aspire to be British largely fails to focus on what’s happening outside of England. This ignores the way that education is run in post-devolution UK, and indeed how it has been run in Scotland for much longer.
In the time that I have spent here in Wales as a lecturer in French at Bangor University, I have always been pleased to see the enthusiasm of school pupils who participate in events about learning languages. Indeed, I am delighted to see many of the students that I teach going into local schools to promote languages thanks to projects run by Routes into Languages Cymru by becoming Student Language Ambassadors or participating in the Adopt a Class Project.
As a nation, we need to capitalize on this enthusiasm and encourage young people to keep going with languages. It is great to hear about more and more primary schools teaching foreign languages for an early age and I hope that this will ultimately lead to an increase in the numbers of pupils who pursue foreign languages at school to the age of 16 or 18, and ultimately to university.