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Tuesday April 24, 2012

Why languages should be compulsory in British schools

In rainy London for a few days and feeling homesick for Spain, I popped by Gail’s bakery in St John’s Wood, for a coffee and croissant and was asked if I had a loyalty card. When I explained that I didn’t because I lived in Majorca, the woman at the counter cheerfully broke into Spanish. She explained that her mother was Venezuelan and her father Italian. In fact half the staff behind the counter spoke Italian and began effortlessly conversing with me in Spanish. It cheered me up no end.

Out on the street as I battled with my umbrella a woman who had been standing in the queue behind me lamented the fact that she only spoke English, adding that to her dismay her own children had dropped all languages at their London state school. But, she reasoned, what was the motivation for youngsters when everyone in the world spoke English? I felt that she was rather missing the point.

In Majorca it’s customary to meet British expat children who speak fluent Spanish if not Catalan too. Even if they attend a local international rather than a native school, languages are encouraged and most pupils finish their school career with at least two under their belt. Increasingly as British university fees soar and competition for places grows by the day, more and more students are looking to complete their education overseas. To meet new demand, many European countries are chasing British students, offering degrees taught in the English language. So far so good.

However, as a German friend’s daughter who attends Maastricht University, pointed out, the atmosphere is hugely cosmopolitan. She explained that out of the classroom, a mixture of languages was spoken and it was expected that students could swap between at least two or three lingos. She, as a resident in Majorca, speaks four. Predictably it transpired that English students were the exception to the rule and that in order to accommodate them, everyone else was forced to speak English. She said it made integration much harder for them, leading to isolation and a feeling of inadequacy.

In the state sector in the UK it is not compulsory to learn a foreign tongue beyond the age of 14 and many pupils drop out as soon as possible. Year on year there has been a steady decline in language learning, leaving the private sector to mop up, with more than half of pupils studying at least one to GCSE level.

But British pupils could be missing a trick when it comes to job hunting. Many lucrative graduate positions in the City and in the European Union demand at least one other language and those who arrogantly assume that Little Britain rules, could find themselves on the waste heap while international students clean up. Rather than nannying the electorate constantly about its health, isn’t it time the government took up a new cause, nagging its youth about the merits of language learning?

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