Why language learning matters more than ever

Mark Herbert

Mark Herbert is head of Schools Programmes at the British Council. He has worked for the organisation since 2006, initially as Director of Communications. Before this he worked in communications, marketing and strategy and was Head of Communications for part of the UK’s National Health Service and Head of Communications for the Royal Mail’s international division. He has a particular interest in how school systems can be improved through international collaboration to improve access and quality.

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Image credit: Hector and the Search for Happiness // Wild Bunch // Originally published on 5th July 2017. Image credit: Hector and the Search for Happiness // Wild Bunch // Originally published on 5th July 2017.

As the late, great Nelson Mandela once said, “If you speak to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you speak to a man in his own language, it goes to his heart”. And for me, at least, there are few better ways to express just how valuable learning another language can be - by opening hearts, we open minds and by opening minds, we open doors.

As we know all too well, however, the UK currently lags behind when it comes to our linguistic prowess. In fact, recent research highlights that schools in England are currently facing a difficult climate with the proportion of young people taking a language GCSE falling everywhere apart from in London. The even lower number of pupils studying languages at A Level is also a major concern, especially as they are the group that may choose to study languages at university and subsequently go on to be the teachers of the future.

But why are languages facing a difficult climate? And most importantly, what – if anything - can be done to change it?

Part of the problem is that the value of studying a language is largely misunderstood “English alone is not enough.”in the UK. This is partly due to the understandable emphasis placed on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and partly due to the idea that ‘everyone speaks English these days anyway, don’t they?’

Well, while it’s certainly true that being able to speak English is a huge asset whether you grow up with it or learn it in later in life, English alone is not enough. Far from ‘everyone speaking English anyway’, three quarters of the world’s population actually don’t speak it at all, meaning that learning another language can be just as beneficial for our young people as studying any other subject on the curriculum. Even having a basic level of another language helps to build rapport and to understand the culture of another country and its people. This matters whether you are on holiday, studying abroad or doing business.

What we often forget as a mostly monolingual nation is that languages are essential for our place in the world – not only do we need them for trade, prosperity and cultural exports, but they are also crucial for diplomacy and for national security. This means that those who do decide to learn a language enhance their CVs and boost job prospects on a personal level, while more widely, they aid businesses and other organisations to build contacts and broker deals across the globe.

Employers are crying out for more language skills in the workforce, as well as the associated intercultural skills that speaking “The demand for languages will only increase as the UK prepares to leave the EU.”another language brings – and in all likelihood, this is something that will only increase as the UK prepares to leave the European Union. For many companies, an engineer or scientist who also speaks another language - Spanish, German or Mandarin for example - is automatically a more attractive employee than someone who can only speak English.

With this in mind, it is time that we all think a little bit harder about the contribution that language skills can make to the UK’s long term prosperity – and individual success too. And while it’s good to see progress in policymakers, educators, business and organisations like ours all pulling together and in the right direction in this respect, more needs to be done by everyone involved. The reality is that if we really want languages to gain the respect they deserve, we need to be committed to ensuring that languages are recognised as critical for the UK’s future, and make less-common but important languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Japanese a realistic choice for more schools and young people.

How does your school promote language learning? Let us know below.

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