Leader: Sacré bleu, as we don't say here

Although universities are not to blame for the parlous state of modern foreign languages, some are trying to improve the situation

July 2, 2009

My Polish father, being deaf, has never learnt English properly. He got by in his trade as a tailor with broken English sprinkled with the odd word of Polish. On one occasion, having proudly made and pressed a pair of trousers for a woman, he searched desperately for the English word for "crease" to tell her what a fine one she had in her trousers. He failed and did what he always did in such circumstances - he substituted the Polish word: "kant". You don't need to be a genius to work out what happened next.

Learning a language is important, if only to keep out of trouble with women. Michael Kelly, director of the UK Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, estimates that just 6 per cent to 7 per cent of British graduates leave university with at least "survival skills" in one foreign language.

But there is more at stake than just being able to converse with foreigners. The UK is not producing enough people to fill vacancies in areas that require high-level language skills, from interpreting to espionage. We are becoming less and less able to contribute to research on crucial international issues, such as crime, healthcare and the environment, that require detailed comparative analysis.

Linguists and businesspeople have long argued that British monolingualism has a disastrous impact on our ability to compete globally. Although this may have sounded like irrelevant whingeing in more buoyant times, the recession is bringing to the surface some chronic underlying structural problems.

One economist has argued that even when one takes account of the "English-language effect" - the foreigners who learn English and compensate to some extent for our linguistic laziness - lack of investment in languages is costing us as a nation at least £9 billion a year.

Although numbers studying for a language degree are holding steady in absolute terms, this represents a relative decline and comes after a major dip in the 1990s. We are also witnessing a concentration of provision in a smaller number of institutions.

The problem stems from state secondary schools, where the teaching of modern foreign languages is in serious trouble. Only 44 per cent of pupils studied a language at GCSE level last year, compared with 78 per cent in 2001. At A level, the situation is even more dire. Access to marketable linguistic skills is becoming narrower. Independent schools are still promoting languages, with the result that in future years language degrees will be disproportionately the preserve of those from more privileged backgrounds.

The Government has realised that it erred when it made foreign languages optional at Key Stage 4. To try to halt the decline, it will make language learning compulsory in primary schools from 2010. Still, it will be many years before the effects become apparent at the level of higher education.

In the meantime, some universities are addressing the problem themselves. For Malcolm Grant, provost and president of University College London, it's simple: "Universities have to seize our own destiny and mark out our own future." So from 2012, UCL will require a C grade in a language GCSE as an entry requirement.

Those students will get some "survival skills". And in my father's case, at least he knew how to say, "Help!"

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