I can still remember a conversation I had as a teenager about GCSE subject. I had the choice between doing Spanish or Geography. My late father was unequivocal: do Spanish because you have no idea how many doors another language will open for you. Three decades later I am still thankful for heeding his advice, given just how much of an influence it has had on my career and my personal life.
The Conservative Party political broadcast this week, and its 2017 local election campaign, talk about us becoming a new "Global Britain". But this Government is simultaneously failing to address the problem to achieving that ambition – that so many British people cannot speak a second language.
Boris Johnson enjoyed travelling the world to promote London at any opportunity when he was Mayor. But while Boris speaks very good French, as did Tony Blair, these politicians are hardly representative of the rest of the country. Our inability to speak other languages is an international joke which ranks as embarrassing as our perpetual failure to progress in international football tournaments. Three quarters of adults surveyed by YouGov back in 2013 admitted they were unable to hold a conversation in another major foreign language.
The same is simply not true of our European friends. I have vivid memories of being impressed at the level of English of my 15-year-old students while working at a French school some 24 years ago. When it comes to European languages, the number of students at A Level declined again last year, so much so that even the then schools minister, Nick Gibb, was forced to admit it was a “worry”.
And while the Government has made some efforts in recent years to improve the number of people learning foreign languages other current policies are now undermining this trend. Their efforts are simply not good enough.
The Government’s first mistake is their decision over citizenship of EU migrants. Many Europeans work as language teachers in the state and private sectors for obvious reasons. An effective way to help retain those teachers during the current crisis in teacher recruitment would have been to tell EU citizens that they could remain in this country and not to have to fill in an 85-page form and jump over more hurdles than a Grand National racehorse to gain permanent residency.
Instead, the Government decided not to do so, to placate the Brexiteers. These are the same politicians, who in many cases, are themselves hardly masters of foreign languages – as Nigel Farage, for example, was recently embarrassed into admitting.
Its second mistake is the latest changes to education funding, leading schools to drop languages from the curriculum. Based on a survey of 1,000 members of the Association of School and College Leaders, foreign languages are high up on the list of subjects being cut.
And its third mistake is the lack of emphasis on getting quality language teachers. Modern language teaching in the UK relies enormously on non-specialist teachers. A recent National Audit Office report into teaching revealed that 43 per cent of Spanish lessons and 25 per cent of German lessons were being taught by individuals who did not have a qualification beyond A Level in their language. How can we expect young people to learn a foreign language if those teaching them are not even degree qualified in the subject?
Learning a foreign language is fundamental to business. Even the ability to speak a few words can make the difference between winning and losing a contract from an overseas client. The centuries old assumption that the rest of the world else speaks English is absolutely not the case anymore, particularly in some emerging markets such as parts of Latin America, where only the very well-off can afford access to a bilingual education.
As we go out into unchartered global waters and negotiate these essential post-Brexit trade deals we need a revolution in foreign language learning in the UK. We need the Government to step up and do what it takes to help Britain to form overseas connections and become truly global.
The British people may have spoken, but they need to try speaking in another language too. Otherwise, not everyone will be listening.
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