Why Have Languages Lost Their Mojo?

languageshowliveOn Sunday, I went along to Language Show Live – Europe’s leading exhibition and trade show for language learners, teachers, professionals and enthusiasts.

When I arrived at the conference centre, I saw that The Chocolate Show was also taking place in the conference centre next door. While it might have been a confectioner’s heaven there, inside the Language Show, it was death by language. Competing for the attention of Show goers, there were: free taster sessions on Portuguese, Mandarin and British Sign Language; belly dancers and other cultural performances; demonstrations of the latest tablet technology for language pedagogy; seminars on TEFL; public and charitable organisations for the promotion of language learning doing exactly that; various companies, small and large, hawking Spanish lessons in Seville and Cantonese lessons in Hong Kongs; and, others selling sticky labels, bilingual literature, periodic table-like “maps” of different languages, and all manner of other innovations – all of which, a bit like the latest fad diet, would surely revolutionise language learning forever.

In the programme, a workshop and panel discussion titled “Why have languages lost their mojo?” caught my eye. To a passionate advocate for foreign language learning, such a discussion is like a debate on immigration to a Daily Mail reader. It gets the blood flowing.

Fresh coffee in hand, I headed upstairs to Conference Room 2. The discussion was co-hosted by Ian Andersen, Director General for Interpretation at the European Commission, and Bernadette Holmes, advisor to successive UK governments on language policy and Campaign Director of Speak To The Future, which promotes the learning and use of foreign languages. Andersen, who turned out to be a rather ruthless facilitator, ushered me to a table near the front. There I met Sophie, a freelance French teacher, and Judit, a language teacher-turned-financier who had decided to re-join a profession she missed terribly.

The first discussion question was “Why are you here?”. A language teacher from Newham, one of London’s most multicultural boroughs, put his hand up to bemoan the recent removal funding for foreign language literature in local schools. Next to me, Sophie spoke passionately about the level of support for foreign language learning in state schools, compared to private schools, meaning learning French was becoming the preserve of the wealthy. A young man called Sam, who had recently returned from teaching English in South East Asia, said he felt “bad” about his – and many of his fellow Britons’ – inability to speak any language other than English. It was clear that we were all passionate advocates for language learning. This was a conversation among the converted.

Holmes then introduced the rest of the discussion with a brief overview of the state of language learning in the UK. There had been a steady decline in foreign language over the last 20 years, she said, with a particularly sharp decline over the past decade. Government policy has been a mixed bag. Since 2002, legislation has made language learning at primary school level compulsory, but it had also removed the requirement to learn languages above the age of 14. But there was still some reason for optimism. The current Minister for Schools, she said, is a proponent for language learning. Although German, for example, has declined dramatically at undergraduate level, it is becoming increasingly popular with students of non-language subjects (such as engineering) as adjuncts to their degrees.

The next question, “Why isn’t everyone in Britain learning a foreign language?”, really got us talking. There were a myriad of suggestions. Language learning is not seen as an economic advantage, someone said. English is ubiquitous, said another, which means English speakers are at best complacent (and at worst “arrogant”) when it comes to learning languages. Even if you are learning a foreign language, because so many people want to learn English, it’s hard as a native English speaker to find an opportunity to practice. In Britain, it’s not seen as “the norm” to speak a foreign language, so it’s not seen as unusual not too. The school system doesn’t support language learning. And so on – all of which seemed true enough to me. It doesn’t help that language learning is not easy, I added, especially as an adult.

The last question we were asked was more challenging: “What can I do to help make language learning more attractive?”. Many of the teachers in the room spoke about how they could improve their lessons, for example by introducing aspects of foreign art and culture, to help motivate their students and make language learning feel more relevant. The teacher from East London said we should be encouraging all of our students to spend some time abroad, and make language learning part of “the adventure”. As well as making the “macro” economic case for language learning, someone else made the point that we should be making the individual case too: that is, trying to communicate our own personal stories of how languages have positively benefited our lives.

That is, as Holmes concluded at the end of the workshop, we need more “individual champions”. We need language activists who will go out and make the case for language learning in whatever small way they can.

So here goes.

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12 thoughts on “Why Have Languages Lost Their Mojo?

  1. Another practical concern – it’s not very efficient to bridge a language gap by expecting another person to cross all the way over to where you are. It helps quite a bit if you can meet them at least part way; to that end, you ought to at least try to learn a few things about their language.

    For example –

    Because I speak a fair amount of Mandarin, I’m fairly well-equipped to communicate with Chinese English-speakers in a way that many people I know aren’t. My ear is tuned to the sounds that are native to their mouths so I can easily understand their accents, and I’m familiar with the word usage and sentence construction that feels natural to them. Chinese speakers tend to make the same pattern of “errors” when they speak English, and it helps you understand them better if you know what these patterns are and why they exist.

    The same can be said of any number of combinations of people learning other languages.

    • Athena, I think that’s a really interesting point about there being some value in meeting people half way linguistically, or at least part of the way. Just learning a little of a foreign language, or a little about a number of other languages, can really help sensitise you to the many differences between languages, the challenges faced by non-native speakers of your own language, as well as cultural differences too.

  2. On why English-speaking people are not good at learning other languages, you may get a part of your answer if you look towards India. With English, one can get around the world albeit being a tad hard sometimes. I mention India, because we speak so many languages within our country, languages being specific to different states. So necessity has made us develop a flair for languages. So, i guess its need-based.

    • Thanks for your comment. Of all the drivers and motivating factors for language learning, I’d agree that necessity has to be the most important for the largest number of people.

  3. Thanks for your fab article. I definitely agree with your eye roll at the marketing of language learning products. It’s a bit like a “who blinks first” game, where each player can’t be the first to say that their product is very useful but not exactly the brand new revolution of the century. Oh well.

    You made me want to share my little one person activist story:
    Today I found myself on a train in front of a bunch of bored teenagers and their parents. I had a few Routes into Languages stickers left and handed them over, asking the kids to guess the languages. Before long the whole family was involved, I got lots of questions about how many and which languages I speak, I was teaching the teenagers German and chatting about tolerance with the parents. Definitely felt good to talk about languages at a non-academic and non-super intellectual level. Everyone has that curiosity about languages, I just wish schools had the means and curricular freedom to feed it.

  4. Hello!
    I am a German high school student and currently doing an internship in Scotland (at the University of Glasgow). Talking to the locals I was really surprised most of them didn’t speak a foreign language although they were highly educated people. Some of them had learned one at school but hadn’t spoken it in real life ever since. The only people I met who were more or less fluent in a language other than English were those who had grown up abroad.
    English is, as you said, ubitiquos. You can rely on it wherever you are because it is taught almost everywhere, but it is also easier to “keep” for a non-native speaker because English music, films and books are available almost everywhere. I can easily read and listen to English on the internet. Spanish, which is the second foreign language I learn, is also available (if to a lesser extend), but Welsh, which I started learning only a few weeks ago, is really hard to practice even if you want to because barely anyone speaks it and because everyone who speaks it tends to be fluent in English as well.
    I think that, apart from sending students abroad to learn foreign languages, it would help if it was easier to learn them inside the UK. There should be radio stations and sections in book shops and TV programms dedicated to foreign languages.
    Of course, face to face communications in these languages is just as important. Yesterday I taught my colleauges my favourite German words: Gratwanderung and Scheißverein.

  5. Thank you for a nice summary of the seminar. I was at the exhibition as well, but had to skip this seminar, probably it was clashing with something else. So it´s really nice to catch up and find out what was going on in the other rooms 🙂

  6. Sounds like an interesting conference with lots of intriguing people.
    It used to be one was thought to be poorly educated/a fool if he or she only spoke one language….even in “wilds” of Texas up until the 70’s or so…(My Grandmother was fluent in 4 plus Latin.I know 2 and struggle along in a third)
    The question is now – what happened? And why?

  7. Excellent post and blog – you’ve got yourself a new follower! Even though it sounds like an oxymoron, I have two mother-tongues and have spoken another four languages fluently, plus another at intermediate level. I read enormously to keep up the ones I can’t practice actively, but they tend to slip a bit anyway. I agree with AthenaC: knowing the learners’ language is a definite plus when teaching. You understand how their minds work and where their syntax and/or mistakes are coming from. But in my experience, for real results you have to keep classes 100% full-immersion. I’m shocked to hear that language learning is not compulsory in the UK after the age of 14… ?

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