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Are The British Bad At Learning Foreign Languages?

Jun 2014

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British travellers enjoy the biggest range of visa-free travel in the world, with our passports granting us easy access to 173 countries: a record only equaled by Sweden and Finland. Furthermore, cheap flights mean that most people in Britain can afford to travel. Plus, the Schengen Agreement means that, in the EU at least, it is very easy to pass from one country to another – you could have French for breakfast, German for lunch and Dutch for dinner. Surely, we should all be polyglots?

cbi logoLast week, the CBI complained of an ‘alarming shortage’ of speakers of some key languages. An increasing number of UK companies are international and an increasing number of international companies have a base in the UK. Ever-improving technology might have us skyping Japan in the morning and Brazil in the evening. The lobby group surveyed around 300 UK firms and discovered almost two-thirds complain of a lack of foreign language skills. The most sought-after languages are French, German, Spanish, although analysts claim they will soon be outmoded by Arabic and Mandarin. Languages have a monetary value, allowing companies to communicate and establish themselves in new markets.

The CBI’s findings have been substantiated again and again. Late last year it was revealed that our ‘language deficit’ costs the UK a whopping £48bn a year. And an earlier study, dubbed the ‘Eurobarometer’, found that Britain had the worst foreign language skills in Europe behind only Hungary.


It’s estimated that over 95% of Britain is monolingual, with the 5% made up mostly of Gaelic (in Scotland) and South Asian languages like Bengali, Punjabi, and Hindi. The majority of Brits can’t even stumble their way through a conversation in a foreign language (which is perhaps why we often fall back on the ‘talk louder-gesticulate more aggressively’ tactic).

Why is this?

In England, the answer might be that English students receive a relatively low amount of hours of foreign language education – only 216 compulsory hours, compared to 790 in Spain. Even more damningly, the lessons generally start too late, at age eleven, when the brain is past the prime language-acquisition stage. With no compulsory foreign-language education at a GCSE level, less than half of all students continue to learn languages, with the percentage dropping as low as 5% at A-level.

In Scotland, however, we have more than triple the amount of years of language education, with eleven in total, compared to England’s three, but our language abilities are little better. So, is there something in the water, or are Brits congenitally bad at languages?

french englishPartially it is the curriculum, with its blinkered concentration of lists of nouns at the expense of learning the grammar and structure of language. Mostly, though, it is the prevalence of English and the lack of a direct imperative to learn a second language.

Across Europe, bilingualism is the norm, but the vast majority have English as their second language. Other European school teach English for longer than we teach say French or German and of course there is a massive imperative to learn it. English is the widest spoken language in the world: the lingua franca not only for politicians, scientists, academics, but everyday people. You also cannot discount the immense popularity of American film and TV. Many Europeans also have English language channels. The only equivalent we have is Gaelic channels in Scotland. This theory is backed up by the fact that language skills across the ‘anglosphere’ are uniformly appalling.

There might be some hope for the future. In Britain, we have the most variety of language lessons of any education system in the EU. Over 90% of EU schools only teach English, while British schools offer lessons in Mandarin, Chinese, Urdu and more than nineteen other languages. The 2013 pupil census, meanwhile, showed that the future generation of the UK is increasingly bilingual with over a million EAL (English as an additional language) students across the UK, speaking over 360 languages between them. Sometimes seen as a negative by commentators (Nigel Farage often cites this statistic), as these children’s English skills inevitably improve they will have a massive advantage in the job market.

The UK government have also recently overhauled the English education system, delivering more foreign language education from a younger age. From September 2014, it will be compulsory for primary school children to learn another language from the age of seven. Are the British bad at foreign languages? On the whole, yes, but we don’t have to be.

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