One stereotype that you will encounter in many countries, especially within Europe, is that British people don’t speak foreign languages.

This stereotype isn’t necessarily something that has been unfairly laid upon the British people though, as it is upheld just as well within the United Kingdom.

At this point it seems to be a commonly accepted fact, which is surely just another reason why British children don’t appear to be relishing the challenge of taking on foreign languages at school.

Most current educational issues faced by the UK right now stem from the school funding crisis, academies, and teacher retention. The apathy towards foreign languages is also worthy of mention though.

Foreign languages are often one of the first subject groups to be culled from school curricula when budget cuts are required, and this exacerbates the issue and makes languages seem insignificant in the eyes of many students.

These factors, along with many others, have brought to light some shocking statistics such as those which came from a recent European Commission survey. The survey suggested that within the UK, around 62% of people only speak one language.

This is a worrying statistic in a world that’s becoming increasingly global, and especially with Brexit right around the corner, it’s one of the issues in education that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

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Public Perception

The first issue as pertains to why British children don’t learn languages is the result of public perception and how it affects the desire to master another dialect.

Both in the UK and globally, the reputation of British people only speaking English is very much alive and well.

Street in an Asian country
It’s easy to find English wherever you are in the world

After all, if pretty much any country a British national visits will cater to the English language, then why bother trying to learn the native language for a brief visit?

As a country, we’ve perhaps become a little lazy as a result of English being one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.

If our mother language was Italian for example, we wouldn’t have this same luxury of being able to speak our native tongue and expect to be understood anywhere we travelled.

This breeds a sort of arrogance, and allows us to underestimate the importance of learning other languages.

Children are impressionable and will often mimic the behaviour of their parents, so it’s only natural that British children would also disregard the importance of foreign languages if they’ve seen their parents speaking English wherever they travel to.

This filters down into entertainment too, and what British children are exposed to through television for example.

While many Portuguese children are made to watch English films and TV shows in the original language from a young age, you’ll struggle to find any British children who’ve watched a show in anything other than their native language.

This is another byproduct of English being such a commonly spoken language, there isn’t the same pressure in the UK and to some extent the USA to learn other languages to get by in the world.

British children are lucky enough to be born speaking a globally recognised language, and as a result the desire or necessity to learn others isn’t as strong as it would be for an Italian or German child for example.

Why Bother?

On top of that, there’s the logic that if the student has no plans to travel somewhere like France or Italy in their lifetime then why bother learning the language?

Since learning a foreign language is all about communicating with people from other countries, it’s easy to dismiss the value of it if you plan on living your life in a single country.

This is of course a very narrow-minded perspective to have, but due to the popularity of English around the world it’s considered acceptable to think this way and to live a monolingual existence.

In the UK, choosing to study a language is a decision usually only made when the child believes they are proficient in it or are curious enough about it to justify further study.

This is unlike maths and science which are subjects that have their importance drilled into the minds of the students by parents and teachers alike.

If you aren’t doing so well at French, it isn’t a catastrophe. Whereas if your marks are slipping in maths, then you need to have a serious look at yourself.

This overemphasis of importance of some subjects and under-appreciation of others skews many students towards the subjects they think they’re supposed to be good at.

That makes for an uphill struggle when it comes to convincing a British child that they should be focusing their efforts on French or German.

This means that the main way to get British children interested in foreign languages is to spark their curiosity at home or at school.

This could be accomplished with an exciting language curriculum that includes all sorts of fun trips abroad and engaging language-based activities.

This is where the other problem with language-learning lies in the UK.

A Lack of Opportunity

Classroom of kids
Foreign languages aren’t given much importance in primary schools

As well as a lack of desire and necessity to learn foreign languages, there seems to be a lack of opportunities too.

When schools have to operate on limited budgets due in large part to low levels of funding from the government, there has to be cuts in the curriculum.

Given that some subjects like maths and science have always been gifted with great importance, they are considered non-negotiable and so are evergreen in any school’s curriculum.

Some subjects aren’t so fortunate, though.

Music, the arts, and foreign languages are some such subjects which always seem to be the first to go when the curriculum needs to be trimmed down.

As a society, we often look down upon careers in the arts as if they aren’t as valid as those in the more traditional subjects based on logical thinking and rationality.

This is a shame, as it filters down to our children and allows them to dismiss certain subjects as unimportant, which shuts down many doors before they’ve even allowed themselves to get curious about where they might lead.

This is true of foreign languages, and the spark of curiosity for many British children is extinguished before it even has a chance to develop into something more.

If the only foreign language options at a school are Latin and a modern foreign language taught in a rigid textbook fashion, then it’s no wonder that many children decide not to pick up languages.

Proposed Solutions

Kids studying at school
The younger students start to learn foreign languages, the better

However, there is some hope, as several plans have been put forward to improve the number of British children who take foreign languages at school.

More Language Options

The first proposed solution is to introduce more language options into schools, to give the students a more exciting selection.

One of the main problems I personally encountered at school was the lack of options offered, which put very common languages such as Spanish and Italian out of reach.

Many schools offer some combination of French, German, Latin, and Spanish, although some offer even less than this already limited selection.

As a result, if the child has no interest in one of these few languages, then they are unlikely to want to pursue it in their academic career.

What if the student took a trip to Italy and really loved it there, or enjoys reading manga or watching anime?

Learning a language when you don’t have to is all about curiosity, so the more options on the table for the students the better.

Fortunately, it’s predicted that going forward British children will have more opportunities at school with foreign languages.

Reports suggest that in the near future Mandarin will become an option at many schools, which offers up an exciting proposition to those willing to take up the challenge.

This is a great opportunity for young children to engage with a language that is becoming one of the most important languages on a global scale.

Starting Young

Another solution which has been proposed to get British children more excited about learning languages is to introduce them at a younger age.

It’s well documented that young children are in the best position to learn languages, given that their brains work like sponges in the early years.

Why not take advantage of this and get the students speaking foreign languages at a young age?

This way, the students and the parents will notice the aptitude for language development over time, and by time the students are in their later primary school years they should have a basic grasp of a foreign language.

This will increase the incentive to stick with learning a foreign language, which should convert to a greater number of students studying them.

The idea from the British government is to introduce modern foreign languages starting at the age of 5.

This gives the students plenty of time to get to grips with the languages and more time to develop curiosity surrounding other cultures and customs.

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Samuel

Sam is an English teaching assistant and freelance writer based in southern Spain. He enjoys exploring new places and cultures, and picking up languages along the way.