When England’s GCSE results came out at the end of August the British press were quick to report on the declining numbers of students taking the qualification in a foreign language: 12% fewer students than in 2010 sat the exam, and this is part of a continuing downward trend over the last few years. The vast majority took their GCSE in French, followed at some distance by Spanish and then German. Even the modest numbers taking Mandarin Chinese and Arabic have tailed off.
So, does this mean that we are well and truly on the road to become a nation of monolinguals, at ease communicating with the world in English, and more than happy to leave our dirty work to translators, interpreters and other specialists in the field? And does it matter?
A reason many UK experts state for learning a foreign language – the utilitarian one – suggests that having a language is good for business. However, I doubt that this has really had much of a detrimental effect on the bottom line of UK plc over the years and it is certainly not a motivating factor in persuading a 13 year old to learn Spanish. Although many employers prize a language qualification, the fact is that most jobs don’t require one.
So what about the appreciation of a country’s culture? Do you really need a knowledge of Italian to appreciate Renaissance art? Or of Chinese to understand the triumphs of the Ming Dynasty? It is entirely possible to promote awareness of these subjects in English.
I do think there are powerful reasons why young people should learn a language and the factors of interest to teenagers – the social ones, the sheer fun of it, the intrinsic joy of reaching into another world – are well set out at www.whystudylanguages.ac.uk. The question is: should all children be forced to take a language up to the age of 16?
Perhaps not all of them, if it depends on our current examination system and the knowledge it equips them with. That said, there are changes afoot in the secondary syllabus, and alternative language programs are also being pioneered in the UK. One of these works like music, on the basis of awarding progress through a step-by-step grades system.
And if formal education fails, many people find ways of acquiring language skills later in life, when they have a clearer idea of what they need to learn and why.