Foolish, in anyone’s language

The benefit and the curse of living in an English-speaking country is that so many people around the world speak some English – we have come to expect that of them. And so it doesn’t seem so surprising that, in this case in Scotland, over ten years there has been a drop of 59 per cent in the number of school pupils taking foreign languages, with only Spanish seeing an increase. The same trend has been observed for a while in England, and all this has had a predictable impact on universities.

There are countless reasons why this is not good news. We may be able to order our pizzas in Tuscany without learning Italian and order our Volkswagens in English, but success in global interactions is critically enhanced by understanding other peoples’ cultures, particularly including their languages. A Chinese colleague once told me that winning in business dealings with British and American businesspeople is made so much easier by their lack of linguistic and cultural awareness.

This trend can be stopped, but such action has to be led visibly and audibly by government and the business community. Right now that is not happening. It needs to happen.

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2 Comments on “Foolish, in anyone’s language”

  1. Vince Says:

    I think what you are seeing is a very utilitarian deployment of the students time. Where they see a degree in German -only 615 in 13/14, for all of England and Wales. We’re talking just one uni surely – or any degree with a European language component being outside of any direction they see their lives going. Which lets face it, if they are thinking outside their own country they are thinking of another speaking English as the first language.
    Utility would also dictate, to get to an adequate level of a language to undertake business, a second course of study meaning twice the costs. Nor do I see this changing anytime soon. Why would a sane person read German and also engineering or law if at the end they would need to do another four years. You might be forgetting the structures on these islands are quite a bit different with the inbuilt assumptions far closer to private education in the US.
    Plus, I don’t see the NHS getting filled with nurses anytime soon either, on pretty much the same utilitarian grounds.

    • Brooke01 Says:

      The idea it would require another four years’ full time study to learn German is totally over the top. The students in the UK doing full-time German aren’t just studying the language but being pretty throughly grounded in the literature and culture. A year of study in a German-speaking country is more than enough for most people (and I mean starting from zero). In the US, where I teach in a French dept at university, students attain a high level of French after about three years (more than enough for business dealings) studying French in America, with perhaps a few months in a French-speaking country–and that’s just a small part of what they’re studying in a broad-ranging liberal arts degree with many compulsory courses outside French.

      The idea that learning other languages is so difficult is a large part of the problem. I think it’s a habit, a set of good learning strategies, and a curiosity about others that’s aware that you can learn little about a place and what makes it tick by being there unless you speak the language.


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