Crisis in language learning

I was shocked and saddened to wake up the other morning to more news of the crisis in the teaching of foreign languages in our schools Over recent years, the number of students opting to take Spanish and German has been steadily declining but now the same trend is being seen for French.

Oh no! Not French as well! Just when I thought (perhaps naively) that the language of Molière was still holding its own in a nation which seems to be becoming more insular by the day, the sad news of its decline broke.

As a linguist, I obviously have a bias towards the importance of learning another foreign language and I am happy to hold my hands up to this fact.

However, I am convinced that learning another language does much more that simply teach a person how to converse in a different tongue.

I recently spent 9 wonderful days in Magadi, Kenya helping in a school thanks to a local charity called the Memusi Foundation. Whilst I have no knowledge of Swahili or the local dialect used by the people of that region, I was able to communicate with them through smiles, gestures, play and some very simple exchanges of English and Swahili. Without my grounding in and understanding of other languages and cultures, I may not have had the openness and conviction to try to make that connection.

Children as young as 4 were reaching out to me and desperately trying to string together the few words of English they had learned in school. Their desire was eager, honest and enthusiastic. They wanted to know about me, who I was, where I had come from, why I was there...

If only we British had that same desire to see outside of ourselves and our comfortable island and look at the world from a different perspective. Sadly I fear that the lack of importance placed on the teaching of foreign languages in our schools will only reinforce our contented insularity.

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