A recent debate on language learning in the UK heard one attendee claim that, without a grasp of languages, people are unlikely to reach the highest point in their chosen profession.

Language learning up for debate

The debate was hosted by the British Academy and the Guardian, with the newspaper reporting that the reason being able to speak another language is so vital in industries such as medicine, science and technology is the sheer volume of international research linked to the sectors that is not translated into English. Therefore, those who are able to read it have a better chance of benefiting from the information it offers.

It has long been suggested that language skills can assist people professionally. Speaking another language is an ability that stands out to employers looking for someone to work with clients, partners and consumers in overseas markets. However, in an era of increasing globalization, having a grasp of more than one language can also help employees get ahead in their profession – even if their job does not require them to work directly with people who speak a different language.

The debate was organised as part of an effort to address why the UK is falling behind when it comes to foreign language skills, and how this trend can be reversed. Among the attendees were head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s languages excellence delivery team Dawn Fahy, executive director of the LoL Educational Trust Ann Carlisle, author of State of the Nation Teresa Tinsley and Helen Wallace, foreign secretary at the British Academy, while journalist Sue Littlemore chaired the meeting. It was held under the Chatham House rule, so the comments of the attendees can be reported but not attributed.

While the value of language skills when looking for a job was acknowledged at the meeting, there were those who felt the other benefits of this ability needed to be extolled. One attendee said: “It is no good saying to a kid ‘learn a language because in 15 years’ time you’ll get a better job’ … children just don’t buy that. We have to stress the personal and cultural benefits that languages can bring.”

Indeed, children’s keenness to study a language appears to be dropping sharply in the UK. An investigation by the Guardian last month revealed that 40 per cent of UK universities have axed their specialist European language degrees. Since 1998, more than one-third of the institutions have stopped offering French, Spanish, German or Italian qualifications. In schools, meanwhile, the number of students choosing to study a modern foreign language at A-level has hit its lowest rate since the middle of the 1990s.

Peer-to-peer values

One suggestion to be raised at the debate was that role models could be a good way of encouraging young people to learn languages. The attendees put forward the idea of making gap-year students ambassadors for languages, so they could visit schools and talk about how being able to speak a language allowed them to immerse themselves in other cultures. Having students’ peers talk to them about the value of language learning would be more effective than hearing it from teachers, they added. Another participant claimed that many children “don’t understand the range of jobs” available to them when they have these skills, and mistakenly assume their options are to become a translator or a teacher. However, young people who have relocated abroad and got a career in their dream industry thanks to their language abilities could help to change the students’ minds.

The problem with putting this plan into action is funding, the meeting heard. While schools are expected to provide career guidance and information, there is no dedicated state funding in place to support this. In addition, teaching groups often do not prioritise languages, because maths and English results are more influential in terms of school rankings, the participants revealed. While these subjects are regarded as essential, languages are not. However, this situation could change if government plans to alter school league tables are put into action. It would mean schools are judged on the overall results of pupils in eight GCSE subjects.

Languages return to the classroom

Compulsory language learning was discarded by the Labour government in 2004, meaning that pupils do not have to continue learning one after the age of 14. However, new plans are in the pipeline for language learning to be made compulsory from primary school. The meeting’s attendees all agreed that this could help to improve the UK’s standing when it comes to language abilities. How to go about this, though, was still a matter of debate.

“Kids are growing up in a far more global, multilingual environment, but when they get to school, languages becomes a subject,” a participant claimed. Another added: “Every child should have the chance to improve their literacy in their first language and learn a new one. Every learner a language learner – that’s my desire.”

Several politicians have called for more emphasis to be placed on language learning in recent months. MEP Richard Howitt said it was “so important” for young people to learn a language as half of the UK’s trade was with Europe and British businesses needed employees who were able to speak the same language as their customers, according to Cambridge News. Meanwhile, foreign secretary William Hague has also asserted the value of language skills, particularly when it comes to working in foreign policy.