Languishing in language learning: are we losing out?

Statistics show that fewer young people are opting to study languages in the UK. English is widely taught and spoken throughout Europe, but is this an excuse for people to stop learning foreign languages?

The British Council’s Language Trends report of 2016 showed that the take up of languages at GCSE level in the UK has dropped significantly from 76 per cent of pupils in 2002 to just 48 per cent of students in 2015. The number of students opting to study languages at A level has also declined.

Often people in the UK assume that there is no need or benefit to learning languages as English is the third most widely spoken language in the world. It is widely taught in Europe with data from Eurostat showing that in 2014, 94.1 per cent of students from EU-28 were studying English in secondary school. Yet despite the prevalence of English in Europe, according to the British Council 75 per cent of the world’s population has no understanding of the language.

A declining take up of languages can be attributed to numerous factors. Firstly, the way in which they are taught and assessed. Students also generally perceive languages as ‘difficult’ subjects.
The government’s policy on language learning has perhaps influenced cultural attitudes towards languages as it was not until 2012 that the government decided to make languages compulsory for Key Stage 2 learners (pupils in years three to six of primary school).

Yet Peter Dayan, the head of the University’s Department of European Languages and Cultures, explains that, especially in primary schools, “the teachers simply are not there”.

For these reasons, fewer students have opted to study languages at GCSE and A-Level, which is beginning to have an impact on university language departments. The University of Edinburgh has not yet been affected by this decline as Dayan explains that fortunately they receive “so many brilliant applications” that they have to “turn away perfectly good applicants”.

However, a problem that the department does have, which is not new but is not going away, is that languages are seen as an ‘elite’ subject, for people at academically high-performing schools. The university department is thinking about ways to widen participation.

Yet perhaps new technologies will reduce the need for people to learn languages. At this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, held earlier this month, Waverly Lab launched their ‘Pilot earpiece’, an in-ear wearable device that translates languages almost instantly.

The prototype device connects to an app that uses speech recognition and machine translation to convert spoken language with only a few seconds delay. The device is set to sell for £244 later this year and will be able to translate English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese, with more languages added later on.

Other technology has also been introduced such as ‘ili’, a wearable translator that does not require Wi-Fi and translates English, Japanese and Chinese. With the introduction of machine translation, perhaps there will be no need in the future for people to study languages.

Yet, Peter Dayan, the head of the university’s department of European Languages and Cultures, believes that the study of languages is not just important for the language itself but to learn how people think and communicate.

He believes that learning languages is ‘absolutely essential’ in the modern world. “It is the antidote to small-mindedness, narrow-mindedness, and parochialism; it is the way forward to mutual understanding and respect, tolerance, and to put it bluntly, world peace.”

Whilst new technologies may mean that people no longer need to study languages, the process of learning about and understanding other people’s mindsets cannot be so easily replaced.

 

Image: Calico Spanish

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