Mind your languages! UK is warned it cannot carry on at bottom of class

The 'Why should I bother with another language' attitude does not work any more, says EU education Commissioner

Richard Garner
Saturday 19 October 2013 00:00 BST
The UK is languishing at the foot of a European languages league table
The UK is languishing at the foot of a European languages league table

Britons can no longer rely on the rest of the world speaking English to get by in the world of business or work, the European Education Commissioner warns.

Androulla Vassiliou cited figures which showed the UK languishing at the foot of a European languages league table - the EU had set a target of 50 per cent of people speaking two foreign languages fluently - yet in the UK only nine per cent of 15-year-olds spoke one foreign language. That compared with more than 80 per cent of 15-year-olds in the Netherlands and Sweden, who topped the table.

Interviewed by The Independent, Ms Vassiliou said: "The results of the survey were disappointing - and very disappointing for the UK because it came last.

"I think it is because the majority of people (90 per cent) who learn foreign languages have their first foreign language as English," she said. "There is absolute confidence amongst the British 'I can get along with my language - why should I bother with another language?'."

She added: "This attitude doesn't work. We live in a globalised world. We travel a lot. The EU, for instance, won't employ people unless they speak two other languages."

In addition, more business was being conducted online and people were more reluctant to conduct their business online in a foreign language.

Ms Vassiliou, who was addressing the London Languages Show in Olympia yesterday, added that Britons were also reluctant to sign up for programmes - such as Erasmus+ - which offered more than four million people across the EU the chance to spend part of their studies or training in another country.

Figures showed nearly 40,000 British citizens were receiving grants to study abroad from the EU - compared with 83,000 a year in Germany and more than 70,000 a year in both France and Spain.

She added: "It's not just about improving language skills. It's about opening up minds to new ideas and meeting people from different cultures."

Figures also showed the number of degree courses in French and German had plunged - from 105 to 70 in French since 200 and 105 to 50 in German. In addition, the number of 18-year-olds applying to study European languages had plunged by nearly 17 per cent since 2010.

She said that the UK should take a leaf out of China's book which had asked for its teachers to be trained in all the languages of the EU so it could communicate with each country in its own language.

However, she said she had detected a willingness on the part of the Coalition Government to tackle the problem.

"There are two or three things which make me more optimistic," she said. "For instance, as from next September, they are going to teach one foreign language from the age of seven which is very good. The earlier you start the better - but seven is a good age."

She also cited Education Secretary Michael Gove's new English Baccalaureate GCSE ranking measure for school league tables - which meant pupils could not qualify for it unless they received a top grade pass in a language. "It encourages young people to take a language - and the chances that they will continue with it are very good, too," she said.

In addition, private sector language provision was flourishing.

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