Thursday, 27 August 2009

If the foreigners don't understand, just speak louder

Yesterday's GCSE results in England highlighted the study of languages continuing its steady decline, with data from the exam boards showing fewer people taking French (down 6.6% on last year) and German (down 4.2%). Figures produced in a report earlier this year also show that at 550 state comprehensive and secondary modern schools fewer that one in 10 pupils was awarded a top grade A* to C grade GCSE pass in a language. In 34 of them - including two of the Government's flagship academies - not a single pupil gained a high pass. This report suggests that a class divide is opening up in the teaching of languages. Of the 62 schools where all pupils received an A* to C, 58 are independent schools and four are selective grammar schools. Admittedly, the government has introduced a strategy to increase language teaching in primary schools, and also aims to make it compulsory for every child to start to learn a language from the age of seven by the end of this decade. But all of this may be too little too late if UK workers are to avoid to continue being thought of as the dunces of foreign languages.

Poor language skills 'hamper UK'

  • As the UK now operates within a global market, how important is it for employees to be equipped with language skills?
  • Are UK jobs which require proficiency in a foreign language regarded as specialised as, for example, ones requiring engineering or accounting skills?
  • What is likely to be the long term effect of the UK lagging behind in the language league?
  • Research activity: which are likely to be the most widely spoken languages in the next decade, and are we prepared to meet this challenge?


  1. The little-mentioned problem is which language to offer to learners. Learn French, and you're lost in Hungary.Learn German,and you can't ask for a glass of water in Portugal.

    I suggest that it would be useful and practical to introduce Esperanto as a starter language. Your readers may have the idea that Esperanto is something historical or experimental. In fact this planned second language is spoken by a growing population of people across the world. Take a look at

    Maybe this idea is just too sensible!

  2. Stephen Thompson28 August 2009 at 18:05

    'You will always be able to buy in English, but you will only SELL in German.' So said a German Ambassador many years ago when a young 'everyone speaks English' exec. told him he didn't need to learn German because he travelled all round Germany buying for his company and had no problem using English.

    Introducing an 'entitlement' to learn 'a foreign language' in primary school wont be any more successful now than it was in the 60s and 70s when it was tried before; do it badly and it puts pupils off, do it well and continuity in the secondary schools is a problem.

    But Bill Chapman has identified a real issue - while it is clear that we need linguists, it is not clear where to start, unless, of course, Esperanto, already proven to have great value as a language learning tool, is given a fair chance.

  3. Bill/Stephen:

    Thanks for your very helpful and thought-provoking comments. Interestingly enough, I was at a meeting for Chinese students commencing their year abroad at my local university last night. Their English-speaking skills were alarmingly and embarrassingly good!