Multilingualism in Britain

Multilingualism in Britain: A Snapshot From the Trenches

Great Britain is unusual. Geographically isolated, densely populated, and equally blessed and burdened with a history of “ruling the waves”. The majority of foreign nationals in Britain have always been nationals of the Commonwealth, invited guest workers from earlier in the 20th century.

The history of British power has always stood in contrast to Britain’s political need for close ties with the European Union. And over the last decade, there are two things that have really put a strain on the identity of this country: the economic crisis and the expansion of the European Union. EDUKWEST’s kick-off post on Multilingualism in Europe showed that the second language spoken on this island is now not Punjabi or Welsh, but Polish. As Britain is becoming a more multilingual place, why is education policy not following suit?

Since starting my business as an independent language teacher here in Britain, I have come across more struggles and barriers to language learning in Britain than I can count. Based on original research carried out by the British Academy the number of GCSE entries in foreign languages is at 41% – compare that to 72% of the population agreeing with the EU’s “Mother tongue +2” Initiatives.

So what is it that’s holding Britain back? Can we put it all down to the global dominance of world language English? The following points are observations I have made in my years as a multilingual in Britain, which go a long way towards revealing more behind the British lag in multilingualism than meets the eye.

Ghosts of Educators Past

Back in the 1960s, new ideas in education were sweeping the nation. Schools stopped teaching Latin in a move towards creating a more inclusive classroom experience, but didn’t stop there – many abandoned grammar teaching in both the native and any foreign languages.

Language learning in British schools became a matter of reciting set pieces and focusing on teaching students the kinds of phrases that would be instantly usable. Fifty years later, this means a whole generation of adults can ask for directions to the nearest youth hostel, but very few actually know what a noun is. The damage done is not only a gap in basic education for many, but more importantly it has created a low in confidence like never before. Brits just don’t believe that they can learn languages. While calls for reintroducing grammar education are returning, the generation of parents that are unable to assist their children with their English homework has contributed to creating Britain’s particular gap in confidence when it comes to acquiring any language, even their own.

Combatting Difficult with More Difficult

Leading organisations like the British Council are essential in supporting the British language development. But driven by political emphasis and a push towards potential future trade partners, the focus in primary education has actually moved away from the classic language choices of French, German or Spanish. Instead, schools are encouraged to teach Mandarin. Is this move towards a language that has even less in common with the linguistic construct of English a much-needed palate cleanser, or another blow to the fragile confidence of English native speakers everywhere?

The Workplace Gap

There seems to be an unshakeable belief in the English-speaking world that language acquisition is never more possible than in an child aged seven or younger, leading to the strong focus of education ministers on plugging the language gap. While it is undisputed that including languages in the primary school curriculum is a positive move, the positive development still stops there. With less than half of the teaching population qualified to teach a language above A1 level, the international curriculum will fail the future workforce in the same way as it is currently doing. The British workforce is experiencing a huge skills gap when it comes to its competitiveness on an international market, and without a wider commitment to saying “Languages boost employability!”, Britain will always have a long way to go before it can produce graduate-level speakers of several languages.

So What Can Be Done?

While academics and researchers are contributing valuable work at the higher level of education policy, the real situation on the ground in Britain is far from ideal. As an independent language tutor based in the North of England, I cannot say that finding hordes of local adults who are keen to learn a language is easy. But the silver lining is clearly showing. Despite a lack of reliable statistics on adult learning in the UK, my anecdotal evidence has been encouraging. I regularly find people fluent in other languages, adults who tell me excitedly about their years spent living and working abroad.

Initiatives like Routes into Languages provide an excellent push to encourage young people to take up language learning, but there is a huge deficit in the education opportunities open to the working population. The self-improvement and positivity drive that many adults experience in the United States is not as visible on British shores, and sadly language learning still has not been recognised as what it really is — a path to personal growth, increased intellectual power and much improved employability at any age.

The key to boosting Britain’s multilingual advantage lies in boosting the status of multilingualism itself, making it clear that personal growth, enjoyment and happiness are part of what language contributes to the learner’s life. This move forward should be lead by the most qualified educators and most enthusiastic employers, bringing more language events to the population, boosting export, travel and independent education from providers serving the adult workforce and make a difference to the skills on offer today, and not in 20 years.

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Kerstin Hammes is a native German speaker and has lived in the UK since 2003. She’s passionate about languages, teaching and helping others create independence in online education. Kerstin is the lady behind Fluent Language Tuition.