Britain: The Monolingual Nation?

by / 0 Comments / 05/09/2014

The fact that, in Britain today, 5.2 million adults have less proficiency in English than students who are undertaking their GCSEs is shocking, if not appalling. Languages are intrinsic to all cultures and recently there has been a debate questioning the linguistic ability of Britons. Though you may think that mastery of English alone is sufficient, it is necessary to note that languages provide us with skills and broaden our minds in both social scenarios, and life in general.  It is estimated that the majority of people around the world are at least bilingual, but it seems that Britain is seen as containing the most monolingual citizens.

It is estimated that those who are bilingual delay the onset of dementia by approximately 4 years longer than monolingual people. Revising this example in itself, we can see that languages already help us cope with a problem that is expected to affect 1 million Britons by 2021. Furthermore, being able to speak more than one language assists in brain development, especially amongst young children. If there are so many benefits to speaking more than one language, why are there still so many monolingual Britons? For many years, it has been clear that learning a language along with an instrument can keep the mind functioning even in old age, and can prevent many other diseases or at the least, delay them.

In a recent poll, it was seen that there are 10 languages which are expected to assist in the growth of the UK economy and it is therefore advisable that Britons learn at least one of these languages. These are: Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish, Japanese. Although some of these languages are some of the most widely taught in the UK, such as Spanish and French, there are also a number of lesser taught languages such as Chinese and Arabic. Mr John Worne, of the British Council stated that Britons not being able to communicate in any of the languages featured on the list will force Britain to lose out “both economically and culturally.” With a still damaged economy, it is important that we all do as much as we can to repair it, and as trade is necessary to the British economy, languages are certainly useful in taking ourselves out of a period of economic distress.

This fall in the linguistic ability of Britons had been occurring for a very long time, since 2004 and Labour’s decision, which was not without its criticism, to make the continuation of languages in their academic careers optional for 14- year-olds, no doubt facilitated this process. Since then, there has been a sharp decline in the ability of people in the UK with regard to the languages they speak. Although learning a language can be taxing, especially if the opportunities were not there during the academic lives of some adults, then this is a common argument used to avoid learning a language all together. It is, without a doubt, harder to learn a language the older you are, but it is not at all impossible. Learning a language will keep the brain younger for much longer, and in the long run, spending a few hours a week learning a language does not seem like such a feat.

Socially, learning a language can expand your circle of friends and your contact networks. If a stranger tried to have a conversation with you, but spoke a different language, it would be easy to ignore. But if someone had made the effort to learn your language and then try to speak with you, you are more likely to befriend them. This is a two-way street. Speaking only one language can severely limit you to one particular group. As well as this, in a time of economic instability and unemployment levels still relatively high, at 6.5 percent, having a language in your back pocket can boost your job prospects. Dr Robin Niblett, Chair of the British Academy inquiry steering group said that: “If steps are not taken to reverse the current declining trend in language skills, Britain may indeed be in danger of becoming ‘lost for words'”.

Languages are vital. The government has proposed several new methods that will seek to increase levels of students studying a language. It will be compulsory for students to study a modern foreign language from age 7 to 14. Also, the English Baccalaureate qualification requires that students study a foreign language. This had a direct impact on the figures with 50,000 more entries from students in the last academic year. Nevertheless, there is still much more work that has to be done in order to prevent young Britons from being labelled as the most monolingual group of teenagers throughout the entirety of Europe. If languages really are going to be necessary to expand the British economy then it is time that a more diverse range of languages be taught in UK schools. This is clearly an issue that must be addressed and if Britain ever hopes to be as economically strong as it used to be, then this will be a priority for the government.