The gift of tongues

Many state school pupils miss the chance to learn a foreign language. Universities must offer them the opportunity, insists Julia King

December 1, 2011




Learning a language means that you can do any job you want anywhere in the world," a school pupil told me at a recent open day. The comment struck me because it exemplifies the confidence that comes from knowing you can communicate in an international environment.

At this student's school, an independent school in the West Midlands, language tuition at A level is thriving: not just French or Spanish, but Mandarin - and, in some cases, Japanese and Russian, too. So he and his fellow pupils are able to look boldly to the future as global business expands into new markets and employs talent from diverse geographies.

The assumption that "English is the language of business" is starting to look alarmingly complacent. Nick Clegg, the multilingual deputy prime minister, may be an exception in politics; in business, however, the top echelons - and those striving to reach them - are increasingly occupied by people who can speak comfortably in a variety of tongues.

I worry that when we meet young people from the maintained sector - the state schools from which Aston University recruits 90 per cent of its students - they have not had the chance to master other languages at school.

Earlier this year, CILT, the National Centre for Languages reported on a survey of 711 English secondary schools. The key findings are shocking. A form of educational apartheid is developing in access to language study. Looking at the "benchmark" level - where half of Year 11 pupils are studying a language at GCSE - just 38 per cent of state schools hit the mark, down from 53 per cent in 2005. There is no parallel decline in the independent sector: 93 per cent of schools have at least half of Year 11 pupils studying a foreign language.

And provision for language learning outside the "big three" - French, Spanish and German - is much more likely to be found in the independent sector. Arabic is offered by only 5 per cent of state schools, but it can be studied at 12 per cent of independents. The same pattern applies to Russian, Japanese and Mandarin. This has clear implications for the career opportunities of both sets of young people in a world where the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China continue to grow at 6 per cent plus while we stagnate.

Businesses will ask themselves: "Why hire a capable English speaker when you can take a polished multilingual applicant instead?" Indeed, why not recruit a well-qualified graduate from elsewhere in Europe who has excellent English in addition to other languages?

At this time of turmoil for the European Union - with speculation about the UK's future role and continued influence - we also need to remind ourselves of the concern that was recently expressed by Dennis Abbott, a European Commission spokesperson, about the tiny number of Britons in the Brussels bureaucracy. We generate few candidates for these well-paid and influential jobs because our candidates do not meet the language requirements. Language skills equal influence in what is our largest export market - and we are dangerously short of them.

It would be all too easy to blame the primary and secondary education system, to say that the English Baccalaureate is a step in the right direction (if too little and too late); to accuse politicians of being too insular; to call for more resources to be thrown at the problem. But, without letting the school system off the hook, there is another way to tackle the disparity. Higher education can pick up the slack. Universities can ensure that no one graduates without having had the opportunity to study, within the new tuition fee levels, a modern foreign language that is relevant to them, to their course and to their future employability prospects. If, as a sector, we remain passionate about widening participation, we need to move beyond how we recruit and the scholarships and fee waivers we offer. We need to look at making a significant intervention - and investment - in language tuition. Otherwise, the lack of language skills among many widening participation students will hamper their employment options.

At Aston, we are a diverse community with a multicultural worldview. At the last count, we welcomed more than 120 nationalities on our campus. And as a core element of our widening participation agenda, we have launched a major programme to encourage all our students to study a modern foreign language. Just as we have always been determined to take the brightest and the best students irrespective of their family income, we are just as determined to help all our students become linguists - so that, like the Year 11 student at our open day, they too will have the confidence and capability to find "any job they want, anywhere in the world".

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