Michael Palin said in a recent newspaper interview that what he regretted most was not being able to speak another language properly. This sentiment is echoed widely in the adult population, according to a YouGov poll that showed most Britons' biggest regret from their school days was not taking a language to a higher level.
Although this year's figures show a bottoming out of the decline in the numbers of teenagers opting to take a foreign language, only 44 per cent are going on to gain a GCSE qualification. This is unreasonably low for a country that wants to make its voice heard internationally. One in 20 students takes French as one of their A-level choices, and only 3 per cent of university students take a foreign language as a single or combined degree subject. Surely, as the global economy emerges from the financial crisis with a much less Anglophone orientation, individuals and business will have a greater need of languages to keep them competitive.
But aren't British teenagers recognising the global dominance of English, and the lack of value they feel they get from learning a language in relation to the effort it involves? Are they right to feel it's an investment that's not worth making, given the other choices available? Rightly or not, teachers, heads and pupils seem to agree languages are "hard" in relation to other subjects, that the investment needed to achieve a higher grade is greater than for other subjects.
An economist at Cardiff Business School, Professor James Foreman-Peck, who has studied the role of language in determining patterns of world trade, has shown the UK is underperforming in its trade with non English-speaking countries. Not sharing a language is a barrier to trade for countries the world over, but for the UK the effect is nearly double the world average. Foreman-Peck calculated by improving our language skills we could add £21m a year to GDP, and concluded we are under-investing in them. He highlighted a number of reasons that explain why we have an inflated perception of the importance of English and why we tend to wait to see if others will learn our language first, before investing in learning theirs. There are three important points to consider in Foreman-Peck's work on the economics of language learning.
First, the investment that must be made now by teenagers in learning a language is too high and too remote from the benefit they will get in years to come. We must make their experience of language learning enjoyable, relevant, creative and satisfying – all the things Lord Dearing and Lid King called for in their 2007 Languages Review final report in terms of "meanings that matter". The development of new courses, such as the diploma in languages and international communications, tools such as the Open School for Languages, and training for teachers to develop opportunities within the new secondary curriculum to make languages exciting and motivating for pupils, are coming to fruition, and should start to show an impact over the next few years.
Second, teenagers lack good information on which to base their decisions. This barrier is being overcome by the Languages Work website, which carries career information and resources, and by raising awareness of the value of languages other than English not just for employability but for social and cultural enrichment, travel, global links and relationships. Schools that organise careers talks, work with Business Language Champions or take part in the Routes into Languages activities with local universities, report a better uptake of languages. It is important these initiatives continue, and for the good practice to spread to more schools.
Finally, it is important to realise the labour market is international. Companies can recruit from the EU and beyond, and there is an almost unlimited supply of talented multilingual EU graduates eager to work in the UK. British graduates without a second language are disadvantaged when it comes to looking for jobs with international companies and will find it harder to gain promotion within them.
The next few years will be difficult for public spending, but if our young people are to be able to compete on a par with their peers from other countries, languages must be given a high priority in our education and training. Other countries promote language learning – and not just English – as a key means of national and personal advancement. We too must ensure underinvestment in language learning is not something we come to regret.