The University of Cambridge recently announced that it would follow other UK universities and drop the requirement that applicants hold a GCSE -- the UK post-16 qualification -- in a foreign language.
Indeed, UK students no longer are required to study at least one foreign language beyond the age of 14. This has led increasing numbers of state schools to cut back on language teaching provision -- citing lack of student demand -- which has exacerbated a growing perception that language learning is the domain of 'elite' private educational institutions. It has also meant that university language departments continue to struggle to recruit undergraduates for their degree programme, and shortages of language teachers will continue in the UK state education system.
Apparent widespread lack of interest in learning and speaking foreign languages is not a new phenomenon in the United Kingdom. Indeed, a recent European Commission study showed that only 30% of the country's population is able to hold a conversation in a foreign language -- compared to 91% in the Netherlands, 62% in Germany and 45% in France. At the same time, ever-increasing numbers of people in the United Kingdom are able to travel more frequently to Europe, thanks to cheaper flights between an increasing range of airports, and a sizable proportion of the country's population has invested in property in a range of European countries.
There are a number of possible reasons why much of the United Kingdom remains linguistically challenged despite ever-closer European ties:
- Globalisation has cemented the English language's dominance in business, science, tourism and many other domains. Therefore, with some justification, there is a widespread perception of a limited need for competence in other languages. The fact that other English-speaking countries, notably the United States, grapple with similar problems reinforces this point.
- Language teaching methods in the UK education system may not be conducive to encouraging competence and enthusiasm from students. From the 1980s, traditional grammar- and translation-based approaches, which gave little emphasis to speaking, were replaced with communicative methods, which encouraged target language-based teaching, without providing sufficient grounding in the underlying structure of languages. This has led to languages being perceived as 'difficult', while many students have not acquired sufficient grasp to be able to apply language skills they have learned in real life contexts.
- Perhaps most importantly, while children in other EU countries, such as Norway and Italy, begin learning foreign languages from the age of six, and around half of primary school pupils in the EU learn a foreign language -- at an age at which they are particularly receptive. For most UK students, language learning begins in secondary education.
The UK government is seeking to address this, last year stipulating that by 2010 the national curriculum will require children to learn a foreign language from the age of seven. However, this creates its own problems, as most primary school teachers are not foreign language specialists, and training them to teach a language at the required level will be a costly process.
Learning the right languages?
However, a more fundamental question remains unanswered. 'Traditional' modern European languages -- French, Spanish and to a lesser extent, German -- continue to dominate the UK language curriculum. However, globalisation and its impact on the UK's economy and geopolitics, along with the increasingly multicultural composition of the country's population, mean other non-western languages are likely to become increasingly important, particularly Mandarin Chinese, Urdu and Arabic. The UK government plans to allow schools to teach these 'economically useful' languages instead of traditional modern European offerings. However, this will bring a further set of short- to medium-term challenges:
- Many students will find these languages significantly more challenging than traditional offerings because they are less closely related to English.
- University provision in these languages is relatively limited, meaning that teacher shortages are extremely likely.
This means that rather than strengthening skills in the future UK workforce, changes in language offerings could actually exacerbate existing linguistic deficiency.