Figures from the Department for Education show that fewer UK children are learning a foreign language. An increasing number of non-Brits, meanwhile, are becoming multi-lingual.
While some may find that disheartening, maybe those UK children are making an entirely sensible decision. Eighty-five per cent of all Europeans learn English as their second language; it has become the de facto tongue of the EU.
The lasting influence of the British Empire, and subsequently the United States, has seen English become the global language of science, commerce, global politics, aviation, popular music and, above all, the internet. It unites the whole world in the way no other language has previously. And it is (arguably) why our island continues to have such a disproportionately massive influence on global culture.
So, why do some Brits still choose to learn foreign languages?
As a child, I was fortunate enough to live around the world, and the experience has instilled in me a passion for travel. My time spent in other countries has proven very clearly that just knowing English often doesn’t get you very far! Even the smallest attempt to speak to someone in their language implies a gesture of empathy and desire to understand their culture.
Conversely, I feel that there is more than a little arrogance in expecting others to speak in your language. My fascination with travel also led to me studying Chinese at university, simply because it was the most interesting option I could choose.
There are others, I am sure, who learn a language because they believe it will make them more personable and successful in business – even though the counterparty may wish to use English! There is a belief (and I believe it’s true) that the attempt of a foreigner to speak the host’s language is appreciated by the host and this may lead to an easier relationship and even a competitive advantage.
The planet’s most common first language is Mandarin Chinese, and in my opinion there is an obvious need for anyone seeking to do business in China to at least attempt to learn the language.
I also find myself sympathetic towards those who nurture plans to find jobs abroad, and hence a ‘life’ abroad, where there may be more opportunities, etc. Their quest for language skills is to ‘qualify’ them for a successful exit.
Do British school pupils need to learn any foreign tongues? More and more are shunning the opportunity each year, at least within a traditional school environment. In an increasingly globalised world, however, I unfortunately think they are all the poorer for it.
Adam Bradshaw is an assistant project manager and a cultural advisor on UK Chinese communications at Today Translations.
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