The British have built a reputation as the worst linguists in the world. All too often, they take it as a handy excuse for avoiding learning other languages: after all, everybody speaks English. Or do they? 94% of the world’s population do not have English as their mother tongue and three quarters do not speak any English…
The ‘severity of the languages deficit in the United Kingdom’ led the British Academy to launch the Language matters campaign in June 2009. It concluded that the decline in language learning was having a harmful impact on the ability of British and UK‑educated researchers to compete with their colleagues abroad. That failure of the UK to maintain its position as a world-class hub of research was thought to damage the UK’s economy and affect its ability to address global challenges. Continuing along the same line through Language matters more and more, the Academy asserted in February 2011 that ‘the study of languages is fundamental to the well‑being, security and competitiveness of the UK’. From 19-23 November 2012, the Academy is running its first Language Week to emphasize the value of languages in areas such as entrepreneurship or intercultural understanding. Further initiatives have lobbied for languages, such as Speak to the future that promotes five clear aims: the valorisation of any language competence as an asset (heritage languages included), a coherent experience of language learning for children in primary school, a working knowledge of two languages (English included) for all secondary school leavers, a qualification in a second language for all graduates and an increase in the number of highly qualified linguists. The recent proposal of an English baccalaureate, including a language as a core subject, shows the government’s increasing awareness of the importance of languages in challenging economic times.
Yet, what can be done for this lost linguistic generation that succumbed to the temptation of dropping languages at 14 in 2004, as a result of the government’s decision? While campaigning at national level develops awareness, action on the ground can bring real change.
So here comes Languages for All, an original initiative by Aston University, the first institution in the country to offer its new home and EU entrants the opportunity to study a language for free, through the rapidly developing University-Wide Language Programme. The LfA scheme embodies Aston’s international strategy to train global citizens and emphasizes the value of languages for life, for prosperity and for understanding. Indeed, individuals are enriched cognitively, intellectually and creatively through contact with other cultures and forms of expressions. In addition, generic and transferable skills, such as the enhancement of mother-tongue literacy and the promotion of communication skills, benefit from encounters with other languages. Multilingualism also allows companies to access new markets, and employees who provide that linguistic expertise directly benefit in their career. Finally, by introducing young people to alternative ways of self-expression and cultures, languages broaden horizons, and contribute to developing an appreciation for other communities. By so doing, they enhance cross-cultural communication and social mobility by equipping individuals for integration with other cultures.
Over 639 freshers applied to Languages for All. About a tenth did not meet the English language entry requirement and another 20% withdrew when faced with the reality of their course demands. This means that some 450 first year students are now enrolled to learn Arabic, French, German, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese or Spanish.
The LfA programme aims to awaken or rekindle interest in learning another language among students. It is hoped that participants will want to pursue their language learning experience through the University Wide Language Programme and develop the confidence to take a placement abroad in their third year, which is bound to broaden their outlook and widen their professional and personal choices.
… and who knows, the so-called British linguistic disability may soon become a myth of the past…
Dr Emmanuelle Labeau
Director of the University Wide Language Programme and of Languages for All