At some point or other most of us have witnessed a “conversation” that consists of pointing, hands being waved about and attempts to second guess the remainder of someone’s sentence, all in a bid to make sense of what the other person is trying to communicate. Most of the time it works – a handful of words, and universal body language/hand signals can take you surprisingly far. It may not be perfect but it does the job.
At some point or other, most of us have also probably travelled to another country where our grasp of the language is limited at best. Cue pointing, hand waving and stilted sentence constructions that make little sense. At this point though something very different tends to happen – the person you are talking to begins to speak English (to varying degrees of competency), and you follow the lead, reverting back to English.
For some this might not seem strange in the slightest, English is after all a Lingua Franca and one that most care to learn from an early age. It would make sense that you both try to communicate in a language that you both understand. But it also highlights the fact that Foreign Language learning is not prioritised in the UK, perhaps in part because we have become accustomed to non-native English speakers being able to speak the language – it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase “there’s no point, everyone speaks English anyway”.
To accept this lackadaisical attitude is dangerous. The UK operates within an increasingly global market, and we are startlingly far behind when it comes to Languages. From a business perspective it doesn’t make any sense – having bothered to learn a language, to want to actively engage with another country and to develop strong links with it, can have a huge impression on potential clients and colleagues. Even from a personal perspective learning a foreign Language can be extremely rewarding – it’s challenging but studies have shown that it can improve cognitive function.
So why is it that over the past few years Foreign Language departments in schools have been cut? The most obvious answer is the “economic plan” following the recession, but as the ATC’s General Secretary even states “the UK’s failure to recognise the importance of foreign language learning is costing the economy £48 billion a year, or 3.5% of GDP in lost exports, according UK Trade & Investment (UKTI)”.
It would be unfair however to wholly blame cut backs in the public sector for our poor attitude towards language learning; this has been a recurring theme for years. So, other possible explanations?
It’s difficult to implement a culture of language learning. Wrong. Look at our European and Asian counterparts – France teaches English to primary school children upwards, China places huge importance on English, and Sweden consistently produces a large number of non-native English speakers.
Science and technology is valued over languages. Largely, yes. The science industry is growing, and for the technology sector the sky is the limit, but if you invest equally, the rewards could be just as great, bringing new trade and opportunities.
We have become lazy, and when the opportunity presents itself, we are too often scared of getting it wrong and looking silly. On an individual scale, this is the reason most often cited for not using or developing foreign language skills. Getting it wrong is part of learning anything new, which makes it all the more absurd that fear of this would hold people back.
In essence it’s about time that we re-evaluate our relationship with language learning. The opportunities that it could afford us are endless…