A woeful approach to language education continues

taken from The Economist 28thFeb

THE last time she was recruiting for her export-sales team, Sarah Grain hired a Lithuanian who speaks Russian, Polish and German. Her two previous hires for Eriez Magnetics, which makes industrial equipment in South Wales, were an Italian who also speaks French, and a Venezuelan who speaks Spanish and Portuguese. All of them speak fluent English. “There were no British applicants who had the requisite language skills,” she says.

Ms Grain’s conclusion is not unusual for a British company. In 2012 a European Commission survey tested the foreign-language proficiency of 54,000 students aged 14 and 15, in 14 nations. Sweden came top, with 82% of pupils reaching an “independent” or “advanced independent” standard. The average for all 14 states was 42%. England came bottom, with just 9%.

Part of the explanation is that many people’s second language is English, while many Britons continue to believe that, as native speakers of the lingua mundi, they do not need to bother with foreign languages. They may be right—in terms of communication. But it means that, not only are they missing out on much cultural interaction, they may also be harming their own job prospects.

They have not been helped by the educational policies of successive governments. In 2004 Tony Blair’s Labour government abolished the requirement to learn a language after the age of 14, causing the numbers taking a language GCSE exam at 16 to fall by half in state schools over the next seven years.

Not any more, son

Concerned about this rapid decline, the coalition government brought in a new performance indicator called the English Baccalaureate, or EBacc, in 2011. A modern language was one of its five core disciplines. Language teachers—an embattled breed—rejoiced. The number of students entering a GCSE language exam in 2013, the first year the changes took effect, rose by 20% (see chart).

Now, however, those gains could be lost, as the government has seemingly loosened the requirement. From 2016, under a new initiative called Progress 8, it has extended the number of core subjects to eight, appearing to make learning a language voluntary. This has pleased some teachers, who felt the EBacc was too narrow, but linguists are aghast.

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The decline of languages at GCSE has inevitably had an effect higher up the academic food chain. Though the number of those studying languages to A Level—the exams taken at 18—will increase thanks to the GCSE cohort of 2013-14, it is likely to fall back again. French and German are half as popular as they were 20 years ago. The number of universities offering language degrees has fallen, too: by 50% for German and 40% for French since 1998. The number offering Spanish has also fallen. Degrees in other languages, such as Chinese and Arabic, are becoming more popular, but they are still rare.

The economy and the labour market bear the consequences. In 2012 the British Chambers of Commerce found, in a survey of 8,000 British companies, that 96% had no foreign-language speakers. First-time exporters cited language as a barrier to entering international markets.

Though Britain makes up 12% of the population of the EU, less than 5% of EU civil servants in Brussels are British. Not enough Britons can fulfil the language requirement of being able to work in French or German. And even if monoglot Brits can get jobs at multinationals, claims Richard Hardie, non-executive chairman of the British arm of UBS, a bank, “the chances of getting to the top if you only have English are much lower than before”.

This lack of language skills also lowers growth. By exactly how much is hard to say, but one estimate, by James Foreman-Peck of Cardiff University, puts the “gross language effect” (the income foregone because language barriers alter and reduce international trade) in 2012 as high as £59 billion ($90 billion), or 3.5% of GDP.

In the linguistic gloom, there are a few bright spots. Some British universities are moving away from literature-based degrees towards joint degrees linked to practical subjects such as law or business studies. Some scientists are learning languages outside their course requirements to make themselves more employable.

Meanwhile, in September 2014 the government mandated that all primary schools must teach a language. Getting children started at a young age is admirable. But, with so few language graduates coming out of universities, who is going to teach them?