Opinion: Britain Isolates Itself Linguistically | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 09.11.2004
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Opinion: Britain Isolates Itself Linguistically

Britain is an island nation and in no way is this more visible than in the country's stance on foreign languages. Now, plans to futher cut the foreign language requirement in schools have caused an uproar.


If all the world learns English, why should the Brits learn anything else?

From Brussels to Berlin, European diplomats and politicians all speak English. But when was the last time Tony Blair tried to grapple with the accents and umlauts of French and German?

Gipfel in Berlin Jacques Chirac Tony Blair und Gerhard Schröder Flagge

A European affair -- but in which language? (Jacques Chirac, left, Gerhard Schröder, center, Tony Blair)

Brits seem ready to leave the translation exercises to those whose language is not spoken in every corner of the globe. A new study shows that things won't be changing any time soon.

A survey by the National Center for Languages (CILT) -- Britain's language teaching authority -- has shown that the country is getting even more monolingual, with fewer children signing up for language lessons at school.

Monolingual schooling

Under pressure to offer more diverse curriculums for 14-19 year olds and free up instruction time for "vocational" subjects, most schools across Great Britain have dropped foreign language requirements for graduation. Only one in three state schools makes language learning compulsory until the age of 16, the CILT reported. That number is down considerably from last year, when 57 percent of all schools in the state sector still required foreign language courses for pupils.

"This will leave school leavers short of vital skills and affect the competitiveness of British business," CILT director Isabella Moore said.

Curriculum decisions are being made without consideration of the vocational relevance of languages in an increasingly interconnected society, Moore said: "With 70 percent of business now involved in some form of international activity, the idea that languages are just for 'academic' pupils is shortsighted and damaging to the economy."

Quiz10 sprachen 07

Europe is multi-lingual

In her comments on the study, the head of CILT argued that there was an "urgent need" to reconsider language education policy and disseminate the positive aspects of speaking a foreign language.

German, French hard hit

Perhaps the decline also reflects Britain's sentiments regarding the European Union. Is it not ironic that the two languages most adversely affected by the change in curriculum are the ones spoken in the bloc's two biggest economies: Germany and France.

According to the Center, of those schools allowing pupils to drop language study, 72 percent reported a decline in enrollment numbers for French courses, and 70 percent saw a fall in German. Spanish courses, on the other hand, held on to their enrollment numbers in state schools, while in private schools the language of sunny holiday destinations even grew in popularity.

Some schools in both the state and private sector have also begun experimenting with offering a wider range of languages including Chinese, Russian and Japanese, which compete with the traditional European languages for enrollment numbers.

A blow to European relations

The fact that fewer Brits are learning foreign languages does not help improve their image in continental Europe, where the island nation is already perceived as largely euroskeptic and "very British" is not necessarily a neutral adjective.

Having rejected the common European currency and with the likelihood of a "no" on the EU Constitution referendum looming, the least Tony Blair's government could do would be to encourage more people to learn a European language -- if not only to read a menu at a tourist hotspot.

Queen Staatsbesuch Berlin

The Queen speaks English, even in Germany.

For the UK's ties with Germany, which are already suffering under a nasty press campaign centering around Queen Elizabeth's recent visit to Germany and historically prejudiced national stereotypes, the decline in people studying German certainly won't help. No matter what government-funded cultural institutions like the Goethe Institute do, if people aren't able or willing to communicate in the language, no amount of special programs and awareness campaigns can counteract the very British island mentality.

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