Saturday, 17 March 2012

Why are the English bad at learning languages?

One of the first things I noticed when I started at my language school here was that 60% of the student body was from East Asia (China, Japan and Korea).  I hadn’t given much thought to what nationalities would be in the school, but if you’d asked me to guess, I wouldn’t have come up with there being twice as many South Koreans as British people. Why were the Koreans studying Russian? The answer I got from everyone was that it would be useful for a career in business. Russia (along with Brazil, India and China) is one of the BRIC countries, a group of key emerging market countries that are expected to be at the forefront of the shift in global economic power away from G7 countries to the developing world.

If Russia is going to become increasingly important, why aren’t more British students studying Russian? If we are all going to be competing for a piece of the economic growth here, a big advantage will accrue to countries that can field workers familiar with both the language and the culture.

Russkiy Mir, a foundation set up to promote Russian language and culture around the world, estimates that 300,000 Chinese and 150,000 German school children are studying Russian. In England and Wales I estimate the number is more like 12,000-15,000, i.e. Germany has more than ten times the number of children studying Russian than England and Wales.

Russian is a minority language in the UK, and is probably only offered by a small number of schools, but these low numbers are part of the wider problem of language tuition in English schools. There has been a fair amount of comment on language learning in the press (well, in the Guardian anyway), but sometimes it seems to me that people just accept that English people are bad at languages, as though it were some law of nature we couldn’t change if we wanted to. There is often an unspoken feeling that foreign countries superior to us in language skills have an “unfair” advantage, because they watch US films, listen to US music and play US video games.

But there is a simpler explanation as to why so few English people speak a foreign language: we don’t study them for very long. England requires children to study a foreign language for 3 years (ages 11-14), compared with an average of 8.2 years across a group of other nations investigated by INCA, an organisation that compares education policies across countries [I added in Germany and the US, using Texas as a stand-in for the latter].  Note that Welsh and Scottish children seem much better off [Figure 1]

Figure 1. Source: INCA, Texas Department of Education

English children also study languages for fewer hours per school year than in other countries. At age 14, the government recommends that children in England study a foreign language for 72 hours across the school year, compared with 126 hours in France, and 114 in Germany. [Figure 2] The combination of fewer years of language teaching, and fewer hours in those years, means that at the end of compulsory education, an English child will have had 70% fewer hours of language teaching than their equivalents in France or Germany. [Figure 3] Ta-da! There’s no magic stopping us from learning languages, we just don’t put the hours in.

Figure 2. Source: INCA, own estimates

Figure 3. Source: INCA, own estimates

All this suggests a fairly simple route for improving the foreign language skills of the average school child – teach them for longer. According to a Eurobarometer survey from 2005, 78% of people in the UK agree with the statement “everyone in the European Union should be able to speak one language in addition to their mother tongue”. If we are serious about this we have to make a longer period of language tuition compulsory.

There are three main objections I can see to this. Firstly, it is difficult to learn languages, so it’s not fair to force less academic children to study them; secondly, we don’t have enough language teachers to pull this off; and thirdly, there isn’t enough space on the timetable to double the number of hours a week children spend on languages.

As I sit here, taking a break from trying to stuff Russian verbs into my head, I can’t honestly say that languages are easy. In fact, I often complain to myself that if only I had started learning Russian at six rather than sixteen, I wouldn’t have to bother with any of this. And that is the answer – start teaching languages at primary school. It makes no sense to only begin teaching languages to someone when their natural ability to learn them has already fallen off dramatically. Of course, you could argue that there are too many children with English as a second language to worry about teaching children anything other than English in primary school. But obviously, since I brought it up, I don’t think this a good argument. Less than 10% of British people speak a language other than English as their mother tongue. Even allowing for some skew towards young people, this doesn’t seem prohibitively high to me, since Germany has a similar proportion of its population with a mother tongue other than German, and they manage to teach languages just fine.

I don’t think finding language teachers should be an insurmountable problem either. Primary schools could have one language teacher each, who would teach all the classes in that school, or language teachers could be peripatetic and teach at several schools in one area. If there aren’t enough qualified people in England, hire qualified foreigners.

The third obstacle, that there isn’t enough space in the timetable, is the most difficult. It depends on what our priorities are. What do children need to learn?  How do we compare the importance of a foreign language with the importance of drama, or history, or design? It should at least give us pause that other countries almost uniformly give languages a much higher priority than we do.  Which brings me back to my own situation, sitting in a tiny box room in Moscow, trying to learn Russian. I am doing this because if I want to work in an international organisation, from the UN to the EU to the World Bank, I need to speak another language. Speaking a foreign language is an advantage in many companies, and this will only become more true, if the economic prosperity of the UK comes to depend more and more on the BRICs and other emerging markets. An ability to cut shapes out of MDF is not, however, likely to be required.

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