• Suzanne Terrasse

Are the British doomed to be almost exclusively monolingual?

For many years, the U.K. has been known as a country of poor linguists, especially compared to our European counterparts.  I have heard so many excuses.

"What’s the point? Everyone speaks English!"

"Languages are boring" (of course they are if you never build mastery!)

"My students just aren’t capable!" (Nonsense! The rest of the world speaks English, we are no less able!).

When I was on a gap year after university in Burundi, I fell in with a group of young Europeans and we had a wonderful time,  volunteering, exploring, partying and enjoying each others’ languages! One chap stood out for me. He was a Belgian native, Flemish speaker, a scientist who had spent his post-graduate years at Exeter university in the U.K. His English was fluent, as was his French and German. He had enough Spanish to get by and a smattering of other languages, including Russian. It was so impressive! And I began to wonder then, why we did not produce linguists of this calibre in the U.K.

Having pondered for many years, I now believe we are getting the fundamentals so very wrong!

These are, of course,  some issues we need to overcome;

  • In countries where English is not the native tongue, it is nevertheless prioritised, usually from primary, and taught in all schools mandatorily. It is the second language. In the U.K. we do not have a consistent programme of teaching one language from KS2 to KS4/5.

  • Our continental neighbours eschew the ‘carousel’ system where a variety of languages are introduced by rotation in year 7 and sometimes year 8 until they pick their preferred language, or none at all, at KS4. In the U.K. this system is still very popular and as a result consistent progress in any language is impossible until KS4 when it is really too late.

  • On the continent, students are exposed to ‘realia’ from sources such as film, music, online content which fuels their interest and helps them deepen and sustain momentum in their language learning. In the U.K. we are often so time-poor as teachers that we forget to introduce the culture and the areas of interests of our students to the languages’ classroom. This means that we fail to pique their curiosity and lose an important tool in our arsenal for motivating them.

  • The learning of a second language is prioritised, little and often in language classes, but also in other lessons; maths, sciences, humanities may be taught in English, giving students an opportunity to deepen understanding and practice skills in a safe environment. In the U.K. this is rarely possible as we have so few teachers with the confidence to teach their subject in a foreign language!

I think there is a debate to be had; we need to be prioritising one language above all others, because in teaching it, we are also giving students the skills to acquire any language.

The argument that teaching more hours of say French than German,  is ‘unfair’ to German, holds no weight! A language has no feelings, but we are certainly being unfair to our students if we don’t give them the chance to build mastery in at least one language other than their own.

I’d love to hear others’ views on this, particularly from the teaching community and from business!

Let me know, dare to disagree….. let’s have this discussion; it’s long overdue!



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