Foreign languages have always been tricky for most Brits, but that shouldn’t be a reason for the government to discourage them.


Diminishing opportunities for language learning

Since the British public in 2016 voted to leave the European Union there has been an increasing rise in racism and xenophobia. A report by the Home Office found that in the 2016/2017 reporting period the UK experienced a 27 per cent and 35 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated hate crimes, respectively.

There appears to be a correlation between this and the dramatic decrease in the number of students choosing to study languages in recent years.  A report by the British Council suggests that just over a third of state schools noted that leaving the EU has had a negative impact on student motivation and/or parental attitude towards language learning.

A further issue is that the government have increasingly prioritised STEM subjects, while cuts to education have had a devastating impact on language courses in schools. The NEU reports:

‘the cumulative impact of funding cuts since 2011 meant by November 2017, 50% of colleges and schools that responded to a survey had dropped Modern Foreign Language courses’.

Furthermore, a report by the BBC suggests that the number of students studying a language at GCSE level has decreased by between 30–50 per cent in the worst-affected areas of England since 2013.

Although it would be unreasonable to suggest that the lack of value given to learning languages in schools is the reason for the rise in xenophobia in recent years, it certainly does nothing to help it. If children think that there is no value in learning languages then they will think that there is no value in learning about other cultures, which will eventually lead to a fear and distaste of anything that is ‘foreign’.

The aforementioned cuts to language courses perpetuate the idea that learning a language is pointless and not a valuable skill. What jobs can you even get with a language qualification anyway? What is the point of learning French when you can study maths and become an incredibly wealthy engineer?

However, although language learning may not be the most obvious choice for those wanting to guarantee a six-figure salary, it is invaluable for generating a respect and understanding of other cultures.

An inexplicable bias towards English

Not only do cuts to language courses deny students the ability to learn how to communicate with people from different cultures, they also mean that young people miss out on important cultural experiences; for example, language exchange programmes. These programmes allow children to live with host families in different countries and to completely immerse themselves into a variety of cultures. Such opportunities enable them to appreciate and understand their host country in a way that they would never be able to on a two-week all-inclusive holiday to Benidorm where all the staff are English and the restaurants serve fish and chips.

I am lucky enough to have a mother who is passionate about learning languages and grew up watching her chatter away in French, Spanish and Italian whilst we were on family holidays. Native speakers would always be extremely impressed with her and gratified that she had made the effort to speak their language. However, if the tables were turned and a French person walked into a restaurant in London and ordered their food in perfect English, nobody would be shocked — it’s just expected.

In 2018, The Independent published an article hailing the Queen’s great-granddaughter, Princess Charlotte, for being bilingual by the age of two. However, most children of immigrants also possess this ability yet are never praised for it.  It appears that being fluent in another language is only impressive if your first language is English.

Apparently, there is an unwritten rule which states that English is a language superior to any other and that if it is your mother tongue, there is really no reason to bother with learning anything else.

Whilst we were on these aforementioned family holidays, my family and I would hear British tourists muttering ‘thank you’ as their food was placed in front of them.  Every child is taught how to say ‘merci’ and ‘gracias’ in Primary school. British people however, appear to be terrified of speaking in a foreign tongue — perhaps fearing that they will sound ridiculous or be misunderstood by the native speaker?

In the UK we are so quick to judge immigrants for being unable to speak perfect English, yet refuse to even try to learn the basics when we holiday abroad.

Other countries linguistic keenness

Interestingly, this lack of enthusiasm for language learning does not appear to exist in other European countries.  In fact, many countries place language learning at the heart of their curriculum. For example, in Switzerland where different regions speak different languages and there are cultural differences between the linguistic regions, students are required to learn a different Swiss language than the one spoken in their region as well as English at their secondary school. Swiss newspaper, Swiss.info even reports that 64 per cent of Swiss people use more than one language at least once a week. This linguistic diversity inhibits the idea that one language/culture is superior to any other, whilst also allowing the Swiss to have great communication with their neighbouring countries.

Moreover, according to the Federal Office of Statistics (Statistisches Bundesamt) 56 per cent of Germans can speak English. However, data from the ‘Special Eurobarometer 386’ suggests that only 8 per cent of English people can speak German. The disparity between these figures is an embarrassment to our nation and something drastic needs to be done in order to improve these numbers.

One of the reasons why non-English-speaking countries are better at speaking our language than we are at theirs, is because they are constantly flooded with English-language media. Taking this on board, a great way to expand the British public’s knowledge and appreciation of other languages and cultures would be to broadcast more foreign media on our TV’s, the radio or through streaming services.

As English speakers we are quick to judge a film if we see that it is subtitled, subconsciously deciding before we have even read the synopsis that it will not be as good as an English-speaking film. However, the 2020 Oscar-winning Korean film Parasite proves that there is incredible value in foreign cinema. An effort should be made to have more foreign films in Film Studies classes in order to increase young people’s awareness of the exceptional media that is produced by non-English speaking countries.

Removing the ‘foreign’ taboo

The BBC report mentioned earlier in this article quotes Matthew Fell, Chief UK Policy Director for business group CBI, as stating that:

‘The decline in language learning in schools must be reversed, or else the UK will be less competitive globally and young people less prepared for the modern world.’

In an increasingly globalised society, the ability to communicate with people in other countries is more important than ever.  Although English is spoken as a common language by many countries, when it comes to business, showing that you have made a conscious effort to learn your trading partners’ language is bound to gain you respect and likely lead to a better deal.

The government should make it compulsory for students at all UK schools to learn a language up to GCSE level. This way, every young person will at least have the capacity to ask for directions or order food when abroad using a minimum of one other language. As well as this, more funding needs to be allocated for Modern Foreign Language courses in schools so that every child has the option of studying at least two further languages.

We must break away from the idea that our language and culture are superior to any other, and from the belief that the word ‘foreign’ is synonymous with ‘bad’. Increasing the emphasis on language learning in schools will not eradicate xenophobia. But, it will help to instil the idea in people from a young age that there is value in other cultures.