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Young people in Britain aren’t bad at learning languages – but the school system doesn’t make it easy for them


Young people in Britain aren’t bad at learning languages – but the school system doesn’t make it easy for them

Following the recent publication of Dr Caroline Payant’s article about the importance of plurilingualism in language education, we are republishing this article by Dr Abigail Parrish, lecturer in languages education at the University of Sheffield, about the state of foreign language education in the UK:

According to a senior British diplomat, British young people’s poor language skills played a role in the UK’s decision not to stay in the Erasmus+ European student exchange programme after Brexit.

“There’s always been an imbalance between our inability to speak languages very well and therefore to take advantage of the outward mobility opportunities, and people wanting to come to the UK,” Nick Leake told a committee meeting in Brussels, as reported by news site Politico.

Leake commented that this caused a financial burden to the UK, and Erasmus+ proved too expensive. “The interests of the UK taxpayer is why we decided not to participate in Erasmus+,” he said.

But are the British really bad at learning foreign languages? I’m certainly not the first academic researching language learning to ask this question. And there’s no reason to think that British students are any worse than anyone else – but they are let down by an environment that doesn’t prioritise learning international languages.

Back in 1998, linguistics experts James Milton and Paul Meara at the University of Swansea explored this very question in a research paper titled Are the British really bad at learning foreign languages? They found that the 54 British 14- to 15-year-olds in their study had undertaken an average of 210 hours of French lessons in their secondary school careers, compared to English lessons totalling 400 and 660 hours respectively for their peers in Germany and Greece.

Milton and Meara concluded that lesson time was so short that even those British students who met attainment targets were likely to have a poorer level of foreign language skill than their counterparts in Greece or Germany.

Things haven’t changed very much. Back in 1998, Milton and Meara found that French lessons amounted to two 45-minute lessons per week. Data on foreign language learning in England shows that in 2023, over half of secondary schools offered only one to two hours per week.

This increases to two to three hours at GCSE level, but taking a language GCSE is not compulsory. The picture for international languages is the same in Wales.

Whether or not British students have a mystery “inability” to speak international languages, they are hamstrung by a school system that offers them fewer hours’ international language tuition compared to other nations. This comparatively short period of formal language learning is likely to have a substantial impact on language attainment amongst school leavers.

What’s more, language teaching differs across the UK. ScotlandWales and Northern Ireland have native languages which are taught both as second languages and through bilingual or immersion schooling. UK students’ learning of these native languages shows that when given significant exposure to a language, they can achieve fluency.

Choosing to learn

Another factor to consider is why students learn languages, and how this affects their achievement. My own research focuses on learners’ motivation.

It shows that people are more likely to persevere when their reason for learning a language comes from themselves and aligns with their own beliefs and values, rather than being something they feel they have to do for external reasons – such as a compulsory school subject.

There will certainly be young people who feel that language learning is something they have to do, rather than something they want to take part in.

However, other students are motivated to learn languages which they feel a personal connection to or see personal value in. Some really value multilingualism, even if they are novice language learners themselves and otherwise monolingual. Often they are interested in a language for specific, personal reasons.

This is perhaps the crux of the matter. In many countries around the world English is the default foreign language, often even mandated at a government level. English has become a global lingua franca, and consequently Anglophones can feel like foreign language skills are less needed.

This also means that English language skills are a useful extra for many people around the world and allow them to get by in many countries – that’s a strong motivation to learn.

On the other hand, native English speakers may feel they need a stronger link to a specific region in order to invest the time and effort to develop a degree of fluency, and as such proportionally fewer people may choose to do so. All this may explain the reported imbalance between Erasmus+ participants who visit the UK and those who visit other countries from the UK.

There is no evidence that British young people have an inability to learn foreign languages. However, there is evidence to suggest that the UK is a climate that’s inhospitable to language learning in some ways, and that achieving a functional level of proficiency may be challenging for school students without substantial additional proactive engagement.

Some of the challenges facing international language learning in the UK are structural, such as the dominance of global English. Some are the result of a lack of prioritisation of these languages in the curriculum. None of them are likely to be resolved by making it harder to study in Europe.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post Young people in Britain aren’t bad at learning languages – but the school system doesn’t make it easy for them appeared first on Futurum.



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