What’s the Point?

by Anna Wainwright
December 4, 2014

When over 1.2 billion people speak English to one degree or another, how do you convince someone that learning another language is actually very valuable (and fun)? Considering that 3 out of 4 of those English speakers aren’t even native speakers, that is a mind-blowing number of people who have learnt English on top of their own language. And yet according to figures from the BBC, a staggering 62% of Brits have no knowledge of a second language, as our national media likes to remind us. Although the likes of David Cameron and Nick Clegg are keen to promote learning foreign languages, like Mandarin, the statistics aren’t exactly what I’d call hopeful for budding linguists.

There are two ways we can look at these gloomy figures. The first, and the one I hear most often from students, is that obviously English is the most superior language and it would be better if the other 6 billion people in the world could just learn it too. When I heard this statement slip out of a GCSE student’s mouth as I was helping her prepare for a mock French oral exam, I plied her with another pain au chocolat and was quick to remind her where her breakfast came from.

English certainly is an important commercial tool. But I wouldn’t want to rest on my laurels in a world that continues to expand and develop- who knows how much longer English will be considered the lingua franca. Understanding different cultures is as important as ever, and languages are a gateway to that understanding. Arguably so is food.

But if not for the enjoyment of a varied cultural understanding, then learning modern foreign languages should at least be tapped into for its business value. If a German or Bulgarian national came to work in England, they would without a doubt be expected -if not required– to speak English. Most people would take a dim view of anyone who came to live here and didn’t try to learn the language. The BBC tells us that 5.5 million British people live or work abroad, so how is it that we don’t often hear about them speaking the language of their new country of residence? Granted that roughly a fifth of those are in Australia and don’t need to learn too many tricky new words (with the exception of “ridgy-didge” which apparently means real or genuine). Shouldn’t it be common courtesy to at least try?

Not everybody, however, wants to live abroad in the future. So it still leaves us struggling to argue the case for learning foreign languages. From personal experience, having even the basest of knowledge of another language has helped to get me out of many a sticky situation. Better yet, it’s given me access to parts of the world that I never knew existed and presented me with opportunities I would never have otherwise had. Simply put, it opens doors.

So when faced with someone who is just doing GCSE Spanish to get through school, it’s worth teaching them phrases that they might use in real life instead of just stock textbook banalities. If there is a real reason for them to learn those 10 new words, they might actually listen and remember. If they realise that they don’t need to be fluent in 8 languages to succeed in life, but that knowing something will get them somewhere, then perhaps they won’t quit while they’re ahead.

Is it time that we implicated more practical techniques into our language learning system and draw attention to the commercial benefits of learning languages?