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.