• Is Language Learning In Britain In Crisis?


    Language learning in crisis

    In the UK 40% of university language departments face closure over the next ten years. Already the number of university languages departments has gone down from 105 in 2000 to 65 in 2013 and another 20 are likely to close in the next decade.

    The cause

    Why has this happened? Business studies is one reason. Business studies students in the UK outnumber languages students by 45,500 to 4,800. Another cause is certainly the government decision in 2002 to make languages optional at GCSE (General Certificate of Education) the 16 years old school leaving examination. GCSE entrance for even the most popular foreign language, French, has dropped dramatically since then.

    The effect

    The outcome has been a threat to Britain’s diplomatic and international civil service and to Britain’s export potential, especially beyond the European union. Although Britain contains 11% of Europe’s population only 3% of EU bureaucrats are British. Why? Because you need at least two languages to work in the EU and most Brits have only one –English.

    Interim strategies

    It is no accident that the British Foreign Service has its own language school and is investing £1 million to improve language ability among civil servants.

    Although some universities, the University of Westminster is one, are renaming their departments, Department of Languages and Cultures, culture has been increasingly been absorbed into business studies as part of organisational development.

    How language and culture go together in business

    However, culture is not about etiquette and folklore or the arts. It is an integral part of language. As Dr Debby Swallow puts it in her entertaining and informative book, ‘Diversity Dashboard’, language teaches you what to say but culture teaches you how to understand.

    This means in export terms, understanding the other side’s expectations, how they think, how they communicate, their management style and organisation and how they lead and take decisions. It is hard-edged and essential to building successful and effective language competency.

    Training language teachers to teach culture

    An increasing number of train-the-trainer programmes are teaching teachers how to do this (our home page suggests one) and it is important to make language courses more relevant to potential students by combining language study with business cultural study and helping students understand the cultural and attitudinal implications of what they say and hear.

    Final note – Will ‘English only’ be enough?

    On a final note, a standard belief is that ‘You can do it all in English and foreign languages are a luxury not a necessity’. No, you can’t. Even if the world speaks English (and David Graddol’s research suggests that the demand for English will reach a peak and then flatten out as demand for other languages rises), you still need foreign languages to build goodwill and to negotiate. After all, it’s not just knowing what to say. It’s about knowing how to understand. That’s culture.

    Note: Figures from the Observer newspaper 18/8/13


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