Viv Groskop: Snobbery has made us a nation of monoglots

Top tip? Learn Spanish. Tom Daley just got an A in his A-level, and who wouldn’t want to talk to him?
  • @VivGroskop

Zut alors! – as someone might exclaim who learned French in the days when O-levels still existed. Not that any French person ever actually uttered this expression. But this week it emerged that entries for foreign language A-Levels have reached an all-time low, with the number of candidates taking French having fallen by a third in a decade. Only half as many sixth-formers now take German compared to 10 years ago.

It's tempting to write that this is ganz furchtbar but, of course, with those numbers very few English speakers would understand. (In A-level candidate-speak: "well bad".) A-level subjects which were once regarded as "solid" and a way of displaying a rounded education are now seen as pointless. As the exam boards demanded a "bailout package" similar to the boost delivered to ailing European economies, Andrew Hall, the chief executive of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, said the situation was "a crisis". There are calls from schools and exam bods to launch some kind of campaign.

But encouragement is not going to be enough. Language has to be compulsory at an early age or it quickly slides into an easy opt-out. In the UK, our French has been flatlining for years. In 2004, Labour made languages optional for 14-year-olds in England for the first time. It has been disastrous. According to an Ofsted report last year, now only 44 per cent of teenagers learn languages. In A-level subjects, there are vague percentage rises in Spanish, Polish, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian and Japanese but the numbers taking these subjects are small anyway.

Language teachers, an endangered species, report that many British teenagers just don't see the point of learning a foreign language. "Everyone speaks English, don't they?" I've even heard from one French teacher in an inner city school that most of her pupils say they don't need to learn a language because they don't ever expect to travel abroad. Which is depressing for entirely other reasons.

It's been a gradual, hopeless, British creep back towards ignorance and shouting loudly at Johnny Foreigner. As my (non-French-speaking) grandfather used to say to my French penfriend to his own immense amusement, "Inky pinky parlez-vous?" Now, as a nation, we've gone back to that.

The challenge for language teaching is now almost too massive to contemplate. Because it's hard to demonstrate the necessity of foreign languages when the teaching of English across the world is so successful. As a native English speaker, if you want to learn a foreign language, you need application and a willingness to practise (and make lots of mistakes). But just as much, you need to be rude and stubborn – which is probably how I have ended up being very much into speaking languages. Even 20 years ago, I can remember feeling incredibly frustrated when I was learning German as a teenager. I went twice for "immersion therapy" with German families. They would speak in perfect English and I would talk back at them in pidgin German until I eventually broke them down. (Most enjoyable.) Nowadays, this happens even in France, even if you speak pretty good French.

Our obsession with making language learning into a tricksy intellectual exercise is to blame. Most people love bumbling about how "hopeless" their French is. If you speak a language, you are seen as being somehow superior. If you speak Russian or Chinese, then you are Einstein. Which does not explain the existence of millions of toddlers who master them effortlessly, but never mind.

Lots of linguists collude with this, mystifying the process and blathering on about how you haven't lived until you've read Proust in the original. In reality, it's not so difficult to acquire a language. You learn a foreign language the same way you learn to speak as a child: it requires constant practice and voluntary humiliation. And you don't have to read Proust. You can just talk to people.

Our years of snobbery have led us to a culture where hardly anyone speaks a language anymore, which only perpetuates the myth that it's somehow "special". Meanwhile, all over the world people speak all kinds of weird but perfectly understandable versions of "Globish" (English as a second language). They do not beat themselves up for their mistakes nor consider themselves somehow magically gifted.

Meanwhile, the decline of languages has coincided with the rise in the (in my view not entirely correct) assumption that A-Levels are "dumbed down". This prejudice is hugely damaging to students, who spend years studying for exams which are then pronounced as "not worth what they were in the good old days".

With this week's fall in A and A* grades, that perception may now change. A push towards languages would help. They're still one of the only school subjects which have an obvious, easy-to-prove, satisfying "takeaway" effect. You can either speak a language or you can't. It's the ultimate defence against dumbing down. Top tip? Learn Spanish. Tom Daley just got an A in his A-Level. Who wouldn't want to talk to him? Hola, Tom! Llamame por telefono?

Twitter: @vivgroskop