I mean the decline of taught, modern foreign languages, not sweary bad language (I’m sure that’s probably still learnt and applied with enthusiasm).
This article in the Guardian, Who still wants to learn languages?, raises a few key points from recent studies, as well as interesting observations. In summary:
- Funding for languages has been cut and departments are closing across the education spectrum, from schools to universities.
- Since language learning was made optional after the age of 14 in 2004, numbers have been dropping. (Just in state schools? The article’s not clear.)
- There’s a sharp distinction between provision at state schools and at independents (“38 per cent of 14-year-olds in the state sector were studying one modern language and 1.9 per cent were studying two; 99 per cent of 14-year-olds at independents studied at least one language”).
- As a result, “the experience of other cultures is now confined to an elite”.
- Languages are losing out in the (short-term) education market because they are a long-term choice in terms of competency and gratification.
- German is losing out the most because of its profile, difficulty and competition from non-traditional languages.
- “There is only one UK citizen working in continental Europe for every four EU citizens working in the UK.
- “Studies prove [that] learning a language makes [children] better at learning everything else.”
Learn a language to know your own
However, the end of the article includes two of the more interesting points. Firstly:
“Whoever is not acquainted with languages knows nothing of his own (Goethe).”
I was in school at a time when the state education system decided we didn’t need to learn English grammar. We studied English language, yes, but I remember mostly creative writing rather than covering verbs, nouns, modifiers, the subjunctive and so on.
However, because I also chose to study German and French, I learnt a little about those things. And it’s only now that I’ve taught myself Spanish and help my local friends with their English that I’m learning more about my own language.
(Because I grew up in Wales, it was also compulsory to learn Welsh between the ages of about 6 and 13. I would have chosen Welsh at GCSE too, but the selection process made that a difficult choice.)
Speak a language, understand a people
It’s the comment from a source at the end that resonates with me now; of course, it may well not have done when I was 15. And that’s why it’s so important for the choice not to be left to 15-year-olds (and younger).
“[This trend] is disastrous [because] it leads to people leading insular lives – intellectually, professionally, culturally.”
I’ve learnt so much about the culture I’m living in simply by hearing how they refer to ideas in their own language, and thereby understanding the emphasis of those things in their lives.