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You may be surprised to learn that, according to Ethnologue, English is now only the third most widely spoken language in the world. Unsurprisingly, given its population of more than 1.38 billion people, Chinese is the most widely spoken followed by Spanish.
Here in the UK, our relationship with foreign language learning has been rather patchy to say the least. If you go back to the days of O levels, state school pupils from the age of 11 to 14 would traditionally have learnt French and/or Spanish whilst their grammar school counterparts may have been encouraged to ameliorate this with Latin or perhaps German. From the age of 14 to 16 usually a minimum of one foreign language was studied to O level/ CSE exam. Even if the language remained dormant thereafter, there was at least an understanding of the basics. Years later; perhaps on an overseas trip, these language basics could be called upon in order to hold a basic conversation, seek help or exchange pleasantries with total strangers. Such interactions usually bring a smile to both parties.
The introduction of GCSEs coupled with numerous curriculum changes since 2000, when modern foreign language study to GCSE was no longer compulsory, have unfortunately led to a significant reduction in the numbers of British pupils and undergraduates studying foreign languages.
This has not only resulted in a generation of future business pioneers who can only communicate with potential overseas clients and employers in their English mother tongue, but even more alarmingly they are missing out on the joy of learning a language and the sense of achievement that comes with being able to speak in a second language with foreign friends, colleagues or simply being able to order lunch competently when on a foreign holiday.
The emergence of campaigns like STEM to actively encourage students, especially girls, to pursue science, technology, engineering and maths at school and onto university has gained credibility and tangible momentum in the last five years and will definitely filter through to future graduates in the next five to ten years bringing some much needed engineers and scientists back into UK industry, academia and commerce.
So can the same be said for campaigning for a resurgence in foreign language teaching? Thankfully, this year has seen the introduction of modern foreign language study into our primary schools. This now puts our language teaching on a par with Scandinavia and most of continental Europe and will hopefully stand us in good stead especially after Brexit when language skills will be in demand not only for European commercial activity but globally.
In my view, teaching foreign languages at such an early stage is a brilliant way for children, without the inhibitions or peer pressure of teenagers, to soak up a new language and enjoy the experience.
As a passionate foreign language speaker and tutor of German and French in East Devon I am delighted that these youngsters will have the opportunity to discover the joy of foreign language learning which I myself discovered aged 11 and have relished ever since.
Languages brings students not only linguistic skills but also self-confidence and a much stronger grasp of grammar that may be lacking even in our English language teaching.
So for the New year, let’s be positive that the message is loud and clear that foreign language learning is here to stay and there will be no need in the future to have to only speak English, loudly, to our foreign cousins.