Number of foreign language students at university is falling

Thanks to the Telegraph for an interesting article this week on the reluctance of Brits to learn a language. “Can’t, won’t, don’t” is how writer John Worne, Director of Strategy at the British Council characterises our attitude.

In the days when Britain had to administer an Empire, young people set out from the UK, arrived in a foreign country, and set to learning the language. These days young diplomats go through the same process, spending the first year of an overseas assignment intensively learning the language.  All around us in multicultural Britain are examples of young people who speak several languages.  All our brains have the same plasticity and capabilities – so why are many young people so reluctant to use their innate language skills?

I think “can’t” is the main reason why not.  Languages are seen as “difficult” which I think is a holdover from the days of selective education. Grammar schools taught languages well, often 2 modern languages and Latin, and secondary moderns often did not, or only taught one language.  A lot of parents did very little language study at school and their lack of enthusiasm is transmitted to their children. In the same way that Maths teachers bemoan a “can’t” attitude from students, MFL (Modern Foreign Language) teachers often see  students who assume from the off that they “can’t” speak in a foreign language.

“Won’t and “don’t are less of an issue – these days all our youngsters get at least some exposure to learning a foreign language as it is compulsory in secondaries for most children, and since September in Primary Schools too.

Perhaps exposure to a language at a younger age, when there is less embarrassment and making strange noises is fun, will help to defeat the “can’t” attitude.  Primary school children who come home singing songs in French, Spanish (or Chinese – why not!?) clearly “can” make funny foreign noises. We need to tap into their fearlessness and enthusiasm, and build a stronger launchpad for future university language students.

La Academia offers language lessons for children of all ages, from Primary up to GCSE and “A” Level. If you’d like your child to be a “can” when learning languages, contact us for details of age-appropriate language classes.