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‘Allo, allo’ Brits left tongue-tied by their language problems

The British have long been notorious for their lack of ability in foreign languages but there are signs that, far from becoming more cosmopolitan as paid-up members of the European Union, they are getting…

Funny? At least they are trying. Sangueza via Creative Commons

The British have long been notorious for their lack of ability in foreign languages but there are signs that, far from becoming more cosmopolitan as paid-up members of the European Union, they are getting worse.

According to recent research by the British Council, 82% of British people consider themselves unable to communicate well in a foreign language, 40% have found themselves in embarrassing situations on holiday as a result of their incompetence, and 18% have ordered food off menus without the slightest idea of what it was – and without being illuminated when the food arrived.

The Barton syndrome

The most striking figure, though, is perhaps that 17% of the 2,000 British participants in the poll confess to have spoken English in a foreign accent to get their message across. Out of fear of the foreign, 18% of us stay primarily in resorts (and avoiding too much contact with the “locals”) and 21% stick to British restaurants (instead of facing the possible horrors of local cuisine).

This lingustic insularity starts young. Last week the government announced a major inquiry into the study of languages at schools after it was revealed that entries for German A-levels had fallen by 11.13% compared with last year, while entries for A-level French fell by 9.9%. Spanish bucked the trend with entries rising by 4.08%

Significantly, pupils who sat languages tended to do worse than those who sat sciences - only 6.9% of students sitting French, German and Spanish achieved an A* compared with 8.4% of those sitting physics, chemistry and biology.

Meanwhile universities have picked up on this monoglot trend - Mike Kelly, the head of the government’s Routes into Languages program told The Guardian of a growing crisis in tertiary education with up to 40% of languages departments at universities in Britain set to close within a decade.

There are real problems associated with these linguistic and cultural barriers. And these are not just the holiday-related problems like being ripped off by taxi drivers, eating unknown substances in local restaurants, or having to stick to fish and chips at British pubs.

It’s not just our holidays that are affected by this incompetence. It’s also our ability to do business. In order to sell to Germans you need to speak their language. The Arctic research project supported by the universities of Surrey, Bristol, Wales (Newport), West of England and UCL is investigating how small and medium size enterprises see linguistic and intercultural barriers affecting their ability to trade internationally.

Entrepreneur is a French word

According to this quantitative research, increasing language competence in business would lead to a huge increase in productivity. A phone survey of 93 businesses revealed that 38% experienced difficulties with foreign customers due to cultural differences, 30% had missed an export contract due to the lack of foreign languages skills, and 9% had missed an export contract due to the lack of cultural competence. This is due to a number of factors: the inability to build professional relationships, failed negotiations, deficiency in phone and written communication, misinterpretations, and so on.

The same businesses recognise the need for change. Since 64% of the businesses surveyed plan to invest in a new foreign country in the next three years, 42% say they need to acquire additional language expertise within this time frame, and 37% that they need to improve their cultural knowledge of the relevant countries. As an expert manager from a business in Surrey said, “You can get away with speaking English, but you can’t maximise opportunity.”

Everyone agrees that there is a language crisis in the UK. This has been supported by the British Academy’s report Languages: the State of the Nation, which confirms the UK is suffering from an increasing deficit in foreign language skills at a time when these are in ever more demand; at a time when we should be expanding the range and nature of languages taught to meet current and future demand.

The government’s decision to make languages non-compulsory at GCSE in 2004 is undoubtedly a considerable factor in this. This places us in a very weak position compared to our European neighbours, who teach language as a core subject from primary school until the age of 18.

Will Michael Gove take any positive steps to get us out of this hole? In 2011, he proposed that children should start learning a language from the age of five. One can only hope that the government’s plan to include a foreign language among the core EBacc subjects in future will reverse these worrying trends - and that it won’t be too late.