“So you speak German and English, but what other languages do you speak?” I awkwardly found myself being asked this question during my year abroad in Germany last year. The answer? None. I’m from Wales and I don’t even speak Welsh. After having spent a whole year in Europe, it really dawns on you how awful the UK is at languages. Most of the other Erasmus students I met from other countries could speak three or four languages, minimum.
I find myself asking: why do so many of us in the UK only have one language, and why isn’t anyone doing anything about this? It’s not only affecting our language capabilities, but our opportunities as well, especially if we ever choose to work abroad.
To work as a United Nations translator, the requirements specify a minimum of two other languages, one of which must be French. When most Europeans are practically brought up bilingual, most of us here in the UK can barely speak two languages.
Unfortunately, there are pitfalls that cannot be altered. As an island, we are geographically isolated from Europe. We don’t have a ‘natural’ second language. There is no automatic second language that would guarantee better prospects for the British like there is in Europe. And of course there’s the uncomfortable addition of ‘but everyone speaks English,’ which so many seem to believe is an excuse for not learning another language.
Why do so many of us in the UK only have one language, and why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?
Yes, English is the lingua franca of the world, but not everyone speaks it, and it’s ignorant, selfish and shallow to assume that the world will speak our language to us.
Thankfully, there is a planned introduction of foreign languages into primary schools in England from next year.
Every German primary school teaches English, and the majority of Germans have a fairly good standard of English by the time they reach secondary school. I even met students who, at secondary school age, had spent a whole year in the UK learning English. Why are so few British students studying abroad?
In today’s world, where the globe is a lot smaller than it used to be and a language is an incredibly useful, looked-for tool in the workplace, it not only looks good on your CV but also aids communication, helps one really understand another culture by the way in which the language works, and makes it far easier to travel.
Languages are so important in a time when the world is so much smaller, and it is so important that we address the issues that are leading to our failure as a country to learn other languages.