Monoglottal stop

Arresting the decline of foreign language learning in the UK is vital to business competitiveness and young people’s development, argue David Lammy and Diana Johnson

April 5, 2010

The importance of language skills in the modern world cannot be underestimated. In a global marketplace, languages are becoming increasingly important for future employment, if not essential in some sectors.

Last October, the Worton Report – a review of modern foreign language provision in England’s academy – found that despite increased investment, the future of the discipline remains uncertain. Critically, the number of higher education students studying modern languages is in decline.

The global economic landscape is continuing to evolve and any decline in languages will harm the UK’s ability to compete with overseas competitors and damage its research reputation. If we fail to reverse this trend, we will be limiting the success of our young people and our country.

The facts speak for themselves. Some 75 per cent of the world’s population do not speak or understand English at all. As companies move to take advantage of these markets, employers will draw their employees from a global pool of candidates who speak English as well as their mother tongues. If UK students lack the right skills, they could find themselves struggling to compete for jobs in high-value, high-skills businesses and industries.

There is also significant anecdotal evidence that UK businesses, in common with most of their counterparts in the European Union, lose business because of a lack of language skills and cultural awareness.

This is not simply an issue of language fluency. More often than not it’s the ability and willingness to break the ice, have a conversation and demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of different cultures that helps you to succeed in an international business environment.

Some students gain that understanding through learning languages, others by studying abroad. Often combining the two is the best way to understand cultures different from our own. That’s why it is important that students take up opportunities to study abroad as part of their courses.

There is evidence of an appetite for language learning in higher education. The demand for some languages, for example Chinese, Japanese and Spanish, is growing, as is the desire for postgraduate study. The number of postgraduates studying languages has increased by 18 per cent over the past six years, and more than 30,000 students are taking language modules as part of their degrees.

However, we need to reverse the overall decline. We will succeed or fail by our ability to instil an enduring enthusiasm for languages among our young people.

That is why we have adopted the Worton Report’s recommendation to establish a forum to oversee this area. It comprises the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, universities, schools and employers. The forum will coordinate efforts to communicate the importance of language learning at all levels of the education system.

Its first meeting took place on 17 March. As co-chairs, we believe it will be an important tool for change, providing a way to bring together much of the good work that is already going on.

We need to be realistic. It is hard to get young people to realise the value and importance of foreign languages, particularly when most of those who grow up in the UK can get by with English alone. We have to challenge their complacency and show them how many more opportunities languages can open up and how much more they can achieve.

Specifically, we need higher education students themselves to communicate their own experiences of the added value that language skills can bring. Following the forum’s first meeting, the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies at the University of Southampton is building a new website, Why study languages?, which will feature filmed interviews with students talking about their experiences both as language specialists and as science students learning a foreign tongue. A DCSF communications campaign is also targeting pupils and parents with positive messages about the difference languages can make to young people’s prospects.

Continuing to broaden and strengthen the curriculum will also be critical. Not only will this improve the quality of learning, but a curriculum that better captures the imagination of pupils can have a significant and long-term impact on the number of young people choosing to study modern languages at the higher level.

Taking up languages at an early age is the way to build demand through all levels of education. The introduction of language learning into primary schools has been a success. Ninety-two per cent of primaries teach languages in class time, up from 35 per cent in 2003. That’s a good start, but we can and will do more.

From this year, all pupils aged 7-11 will be entitled to learn a foreign language in class time. Building on this, languages will become a compulsory part of the primary National Curriculum from September 2011.

Secondary school pupils have been studying a revitalised languages curriculum since September 2008, and a Diploma in Languages and International Communication will be taught in schools from 2011.

We are also investing in and improving language training for teachers at both the primary and secondary level.

As a country, we cannot ignore the value of being able to speak other languages and having knowledge of how business works in other cultures. If we are to get this message across to our young people, universities, schools, employers and the government must work together. This is what the forum is hoping to achieve.

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