Language Show Live 2013: What language and linguistic skills will native English speakers need in the 21st century?

The seminar discussed how the UK could better equip its next generation to meet the country’s linguistic needs. The panel consisted of Peter Downes, Association of School & College Leaders, Helen Campbell, NNI Routes into Languages, Ian Andersen, EC Directorate General for Interpretation, John Worne, British Council, Juliet Park, Director of MFL at Yewlands School, and Nikki Perry, National Association of Language Advisers.

The first point came from John and summed up the whole session: speaking English simply isn’t enough in a world where multilingualism is the norm. French, German and Spanish remain the most in-demand languages, but there is an increasing need for emerging languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Turkish, to meet the country’s economic needs. Japan’s investment in the UK’s car manufacturing industry, China in infrastructure and France in utilities were just some examples given as to why monolingualism is a hindrance to economic development.

Juliet stated how multilingualism is not just for the academic elite – and I can understand her point. Gasps of surprise when you tell others that you speak another language are far too common. The idea that if you learn a language, you need to be fluent to make use of it can be dissuasive. Functional languages skills applicable to the workplace are what is needed, and fluency is not necessary to use language in the workplace.

Ian highlighted that the main mission for schools in this regard is not to discourage the learning of languages. There are still teaching methods employed that are too academic and old-fashioned, instead of engaging and appealing. The goal should be to help maintain a lifelong interest in language learning, and offer an insight into how to speak like a German or think like a Frenchman, which in turn will help one to understand one’s language. Ian stated that British civil servants are among the best trained in the world, but the fact that they lack the language skills inhibits their career prospects, leaving them unable to access the EU; rather than linguists, the UK need economists, administrators and lawyers who speak another language, for example.

Nikki raised the point that language teaching scores pupils down on what they can’t do rather than scoring them up on what they can do. In 2014, language teaching will at long last be rolled out in primary schools, but just 2.5 hours per week is dedicated to this at secondary school.

Helen took the approach that forcing children and teenagers who are not and never will be interested in languages to learn them may not be the best way to do it. Primary school pupils should be given a good grounding in a common foreign languages, in a light-hearted and non-academic way, in order to diversify later on. If they are not interested by the time they are teenagers, let them drop it, Helen argued, rather than flogging the proverbial horse.

Peter rounded off the discussion by stating it is well established that it’s harder to achieve a good grade in a foreign language than in other subjects. Moreover, everyone should not be expected to reach the same high level in all four disciplines of speaking, reading, writing and listening. Certainly, as a translator and not an interpreter, my speaking and listening in particular is not as up-to-scratch as my reading and writing.

The seminar was overall very thought-provoking in addressing these urgent issues, and the concerns highlighted in the discussion will actually be submitted in a report to the government.