Foreign Language Learning Decline in English Schools

The following is an editorial by Ben Eve for internationalreporters.org, November 9, 2012:

Only 43% of 14-16 year old pupils in England studied a foreign language in 2012, a dramatic decline from 75% just 10 years before . However the government’s stance on the matter is unclear. The Prime Minister has continued the previous government’s £50 million campaign to increase the uptake of languages in primary schools with the aim of making them compulsory by 2020. However lessons are no longer compulsory after 14, the age at which pupils decide on the subjects to take for their final secondary school exams (GCSEs).

With such a decrease in popularity of foreign languages after this policy, the quality and style of teaching has come under question. “Students realise that even if they do get a GCSE in French, they still won’t be able to speak the language,” says language learning expert Paul Noble. “Even 18 year old students who come out of doing French A-levels can be surprised at what they can’t say – the teaching should be far more conversationally based.”

Christina Barningham is a 21 year old university student of German and Dutch: “I’m so glad I continued learning languages – I’m becoming friends with so many people I otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to get to know.”

However with English having become the world‘s most commonly spoken language, there is the common temptation for pupils to see learning foreign languages as unnecessary effort. A survey of British people on holiday in Europe revealed that only 11% could speak another language fluently. What’s more alarming is that 22% could not even say one foreign word.

“I am not going to spend months learning Greek just so I can chat to the locals a bit while I am on there on holiday for a week in Greece,” states Steffen Armstrong, a Music student in Edinburgh. “It may sound bad but that’s how it is – I don’t have any problems abroad because everyone can speak my language.”

A number of businesses in China, Japan and Sweden, for example, have even adopted English as the compulsary language in their offices because their worldwide clients use English both on the phone and on the internet. The English language is also frequently heard across the world within music and movies. As the language continues to spread, the desire for English pupils to learn other languages is likely to continue decreasing.

“English is dominant in a way that no language has ever been before,” states John McWhorter, a linguist at the Manhattan Institute. “It is vastly unclear to me what actual mechanism could uproot English given conditions as they are.”

While the government continues its contradictory policies, English pupils may not be sure of what they are encouraged to study. The effect of not learning a foreign language after the age of 14 remains to be seen, but The National Union of Teachers‘ head of education John Bangs expects it to only be negative: “The policy drift on modern foreign languages is unforgivable. It means more young people are ill-equipped for life in a global society.“

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One response to “Foreign Language Learning Decline in English Schools

  1. Asian

    Those kids may not understand that as the spread of English worldwide may have crossed the point that it would inevitably causing more problems than solving them. In developing countries especially, there is a huge strain in the inter-cultural relationship, where English is seen to be replacing local languages among the educated people which drove the rest of society to pussyfoot with embracing the so-called global language. Standards of English in Malaysia, Philippines, Hong Kong and some African nations are stagnant or declining because of this cautious attitude. So it’s important that British kids pay homage to multilingualism as we face the prospect of losing 90% of the world’s existing languages by 2100 – the figure could grow worse and come to include national languages if you Brits don’t stop this trend.

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