Failed by our own language

‘Apparently you guys have a hang-up about languages’ an international friend and fellow York postgraduate mused to me a few weeks ago ‘like an inferiority thing, because you don’t feel you’re as good at them as other countries’. My friend hit the nail on the head of something I have undoubtedly suffered from myself; a hang-up about languages, or rather, a lack of them.

Growing up monolingual like many other British kids, I only started learning a foreign language (the classic, French) when I was eleven, at the start of secondary school. One of my European friends – who speaks Spanish, English, Italian, French and Japanese – told me that she started learning English at two. This put my eleven into rather a stark perspective.

This linguistic dearth seems to be due to languages’ consistent under-prioritization, both in the education system and in our general cultural attitude.

language is not just language; you learn a whole new vocabulary and gain insight into a different culture

School children frequently don’t learn another language until age eleven. Currently it isn’t even compulsory to learn another language up to GCSE. Every year we hear that fewer students are taking modern foreign languages to A-level and beyond, endangering increasing numbers of university language departments.

As a university student it is very obvious that the rest of the world do embrace languages; at York I frequently meet international students who can often speak at least one other language (if not more) yet study alongside home students and work at the same level in English as a foreign language.

In practical terms a second language can be very useful, and not just for holidays abroad. Institutions are increasingly looking further afield for foreign graduates who are linguistically qualified for their jobs.
Apparently British applicants often just don’t have the necessary skills. There is also recent scientific evidence to suggest bi and multilingualism is actually good for the brain, improving executive function and keeping disease at bay.

But language is not just language; you learn a whole new vocabulary and gain insight into a different culture. If the rest of the world is making the effort, isn’t it a bit backwards of us not to do the same?
To be fair the University does seem to be aware of this issue. I have been really impressed with the Languages For All (LFA) programme, and their range of language courses. The University could extend free freshers’ courses to any year, especially for home students. One can certainly imagine that postgraduates focused on study would certainly take further advantage of such a resource. Though, York’s LFA courses are an exception. In general, Britain appears to be falling drastically behind in languages, through what only appears to be short-sightedness and complacence. It’s time it did something about it, before it becomes deaf and dumb- in more ways than one.


  1. I agree, but I think you should have mentioned the ubiquitous view that there is no point learning another language, ”because English is the language of the world”.
    While I don’t support this view, I understand why others do. Recently, one of Italy’s oldest and most prestigious universities, Politecnico di Milano, decided to switch to English, seeing it as the only way to become an international institution. It is predicted that other Italian universities will follow suit.
    While speaking another language is a fantastic skill to have, the benefits of a ‘global language’ cannot be denied. If it seems that a global English language will become a reality, one can understand why the English don’t bother to learn languages as others do.

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  2. When Gove makes up his mind who is teaching what, languages-wise, and to who, maybe languages teachers will finally be able to improve this situation. Compulsory from 7 soon? Yes, that’s fine but can the primary schools be made to follow a curriculum (and langauge) that they agree on with their secondary schools please? Otherwise it’s a complete waste of time – Y7 students come up with the lingustic ability of a baby at the moment. If I hear one more “urn, durn, twar, kat” I’ll go mad.

    It’s okay though, labour will win back the power and it’ll be all change again….

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