It's time to stop making excuses and, as a nation, embrace the benefits of multilingualism, writes Hilary French, Head of Newcastle High School for Girls.
With the EU referendum less than two months away, Europe is the hottest topic for debate in media and social circles. Don’t worry though, I am not about to start pontificating and debating the whys and wherefores of being in or out – instead, I’m going to focus on one key issue that has been lost in the wider political debate and will remain constant and crucial whatever the outcome; that is the issue of language learning and why it is so important that as a nation we break the curse of centuries of monolingualism.
England, and the English, as we all know lag behind our European neighbours in our ability to speak a 2nd, let alone a 3rd foreign language. Centuries of colonialism have spoilt us, making us lazy and immune to the joys and enormous benefits of mastering a foreign language.
They say that necessity is the mother of all invention and (being in the EU perpetuates our national linguistic sloppiness) as long as English is the lingua franca there is no burning necessity or, in some quarters, desire to put ourselves out and learn to converse in anything other than our mother tongue.
Across Europe, in more than 20 countries, it is mandatory for children to learn not one, but two foreign languages for at least one year with English still the most popular first foreign language adopted.
In England these rules apply but the reality and level of foreign language skills is woeful with the number of students studying modern foreign languages on a steep and steady decline. The recent Language Trends Survey 2016, which gauges the views of over 1,000 state and private school teachers, makes for very depressing reading showing not only that the decline continues unabated but that geography within the UK itself also plays a significant part. The south outperforms the north by as much as 20% in language learning to GCSE level with the greatest take up of a modern foreign language as high as 64% in inner London compared to Middlesbrough, one of the worst performing local authorities in the UK, where it is as low as 28%.
There are a myriad of reasons why this is the case but whatever the causes we need to arrest the decline. As a nation, we can’t rest on our laurels always expecting others to speak English and only having a smattering of well-worn phrases in French, Spanish or German in our linguistic arsenal. Foreign languages are essential for this country’s economic prosperity and to allow our citizens to move freely throughout Europe, for work and for education. This will be the case whether we remain members of the EU and become even more crucial if we go it alone. Learning a foreign language ensures that we can remain competitive, increases mobility and employability and allows us to participate in society on a European and international level.
The ability to speak another language is a highly sought-after skill in the jobs market and language graduates are among the most employable. A silver lining in the cloud of poor language take up is that low numbers applying to study languages at university mean that having a language A level and applying for a language degree is like having a golden ticket into a top university.
The benefits of learning a foreign language extend far beyond the practical ability to speak the language or the career opportunities it delivers, into more profound and physiological territory. It has been proven that being bilingual – even the very act of learning another language - delivers tremendous health benefits and cognitive gains. Researchers have found that bilingual people perform better on certain tests even in unrelated subjects like maths as well as in reading and vocabulary. People who are bi-or multi-lingual often have better memories and recall, remembering lists or sequences using mental skills acquired when learning the rules of grammar and vocab.
Learning a second language, even in later life, is a great way to protect those grey cells and has been shown to slow cognitive decline in old age - including dementia and Alzheimer’s. These benefits are not confined to those who are fluent in another language, the mere act of attempting to learn a language delivers the same enhancements and slows the decline.
Language learning also delivers enormous benefits for society at large, encouraging the circulation of works and the sharing of ideas and knowledge in Europe and across the globe. It also helps prevent individuals and countries from becoming insular, strengthening social cohesion, and intercultural understanding.
Culturally, multilingualism delivers enormous returns – people derive greater understanding and appreciation of the arts, science and music all from the study of another language and its cultural heritage – as well as greater appreciation of their own language.
As a nation, we must stop bemoaning the fact that learning a language is ‘too hard’ – because in truth, it is not –we simply need to train our brains to be more receptive and ideally, this starts early.
We’re working with our girls from nursery introducing Spanish as our adopted language throughout the school – we’ve found that by introducing a new language to a child before they are 5 or 6 years old, they pick it up more quickly as their brains are more receptive and crucially they are not self-conscious.
As a nation, we are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to immersion in another language as exposure to language in pop music, film and TV is predominantly English. Other nations are bombarded by spoken English yet in the UK foreign language films, books and music have to be sought out and are not fully accessible. Having the internet and access to foreign language materials has improved dramatically but for repetition and familiarity, English still dominates.
We can’t continue to use these hurdles as excuses – as a nation we must do better when it comes to linguistics and change our mind set about languages, our economic future depends on it. In an increasingly globalised world it is not viable only to be able to speak one language – especially when over 70% of the world’s population doesn’t speak English!