When it comes to learning languages, Britain is bottom of the class -- and Germany's outgoing ambassador to Britain thinks the younger generation will pay for its linguistic ineptitude.
British students are happy as they are; being monolingual
Amid growing concern about the decline of interest in foreign language learning among schoolchildren and students in England, Thomas Matussek fired a parting shot at the state of the nation's language teaching, arguing that knowing just English is not enough for the youngsters of the future.
Off to a new post in India, Matussek said the number of students in Britain learning foreign languages was "unfortunately still falling," The Independent newspaper reported Tuesday.
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"The greatest task probably lies in raising the awareness of the British public," he was quoted as telling a conference organized by the Center for Information on Language Teaching in Bedford, outside London.
"In the home country of English, the world language, the task of persuasion is especially difficult," he added. "I firmly believe this is also a matter of social justice because languages facilitate social mobility."
Joe Brown was the 2005 winner of the German Teacher Awards presented by the German Embassy in London. He works at a number of inner-city elementary schools and told DW-World that the main problems with language-learning occur at high-school level.
"Younger children enjoy learning German, and don't tend to have any of the prejudices you find with older kids," he said. "Starting early is therefore the best option, and in fact, you can argue it's an ideal language for small children because the pronunciation isn't hard and it's very logical."
The traditionally hostile relations between Britain and Germany also play a role. "You have to break down prejudices," said Brown. "It's also a question of inter-cultural education."
Informing Matussek's remarks were figures published by the National Languages Center showing that the number of high school pupils studying languages has slumped by more than 64,000 this year -- the first year since languages became an optional subject for 14- to 16-year-olds.
Learning a language beyond the age of 14 is now compulsory in just one quarter of England's state schools, where second languages have traditionally been French or German.
The latter is particularly out of favor, with some 105,288 students taking junior high school exams in German, and 272,140 in French -- but even the number of senior high school students taking French has plunged by almost half.
"The problem is, German just isn't considered a young person's language," explained Brown. "Teenagers these days want to learn Spanish, because Spain's a popular holiday destination and it's seen as more of a world language than German and French."
Universities bear the brunt
One long-term consequence of the shrinking number of pupils learning German is already being felt by university modern language departments, which have fewer applicants than ever before and face a growing threat of closure as the popularity -- and usefulness -- of German degrees continues to wane.
But as Brown points out, it's a vicious circle. "There just aren't enough people coming through the system to deliver German as a foreign language," he said. "A high percentage of adults in Britain say they wish they spoke a foreign language, but they didn't capitalize on the opportunities they had to learn. Often, this was because it wasn't taught well and the curriculum wasn't interesting enough."
"Britain faces the great task of changing this trend," said Matussek at the conference. "Languages are not just an ornamental necessity but vital to the real interests of this country."