Parlez-vous franglais?

N’oublie pas de pratiquer – et utiliser – ton francais, bien que tu aies fini les etudes ici” was the advice of my French teacher when I returned my A Level textbook and left school. Don’t forget to practice – and use –your French even though you have finished your studies here. I wish I could say that I had listened to the advice I was given, because now, eighteen months down the line, ten years of French lessons and countless hours spent ploughing through vocabulary and grammar do not seem apparent in my efforts to maintain a conversation in the language. Whilst still being relatively competent, I have – rather disappointingly – ‘let it slip’. It’s no small tragedy, especially in a world where being multilingual has so many advantages, not just for travel and tourism, but increasingly in the professional world that awaits us after graduation. But then, I am not alone.

Here in Britain, it is no uncommon thing for surveys to highlight our national linguistic incompetence. Whilst we students are in the sheltered, unusual position where at least some knowledge of a foreign language is quite normal – especially in the vicinity of George Square and DHT – research from the Centre for Information on Language Learning (CILT) has concluded that fewer people in Britain can speak a second language than anywhere else in Europe, with only one in three Britons being proficient (although not necessarily fluent) in another tongue. We have accordingly been dubbed the ‘languages dunce’ of the continent, a title which can largely be attributed to the typically apathetic-British-tourist statement of ‘well everyone can speak English anyway’. This is not true: in fact, it is estimated that only one third of the world’s population can speak any English at all, and fewer still are proficient, leaving over two thirds of people in the world who do not actually understand English.

However, it seems that there are other reasons behind the reluctance of Britons to pick up these invaluable skills, the key quite possibly being the fact that modern foreign languages do not play a particularly significant role in the national curriculum. Languages are only compulsory in England and Wales from ages eleven to fourteen, and in Scotland for the first four years of secondary school. There is no statutory requirement to teach a modern foreign language either in primary schools, or at GCSE level, and in almost a third of schools, fewer than 25 per cent of students continue to learn a language after the age of fourteen. If my own experience is anything to go by, at this point, our foreign language skills are nothing if not lacking – at the age of fourteen, I remember my German being appalling, and despite having done well in class, the utmost I could really manage was asking my way to the train station. After 14, languages are no longer compulsory subjects, and have dramatically decreased in popularity since government legislation made them voluntary a decade ago. For example, the number of students studying GCSE French has almost halved from 341,604 in 2002 to 177,618 in 2010. Wendy Piatt, the director general of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, said the take-up of languages was “inadequate to meet the needs of our universities, economy and society”.

All of this is in stark contrast to many of our European counterparts. In Luxembourg, for example, 98 per cent of the population are able to speak more than one language, and in the Netherlands, 75 per cent. A particularly extreme example of a multilingual community is that of the Swiss village of Bivio, where three languages and several dialects are spoken by almost all of its inhabitants with the language of instruction in schools and kindergartens alternating between Italian and Romansch according to the day of the week. Meanwhile the German Bündnerdeutsch dialect is spoken in the playground, and Sunday church services are performed in either Schwyzerdütsch or High German. Such an example of multilingualism is considered by many linguists to have once been the norm, showing the natural human capacity for language acquisition in the right environment. It goes without saying that the easiest way for a person to learn a language is to be exposed to it from childhood, as various studies have shown.

Of course, a child may be considered to be very lucky if they are brought up by bilingual or multilingual parents, as they are likely to acquire simultaneous bilingualism, which is to say that they learn two languages simultaneously, before the age of three. This was not always the case: in the 1970s and 1980s, foreign language skills in children were often seen as an educational handicap, especially amongst young children whose primary language was not a European one, and whose English skills were less developed than their schoolmates’. This attitude is gradually changing, with additional language skills being seen as an asset, providing the child is taught English to a standard which will not impede their school education. Despite concerns that the use of multiple languages may cause confusion for young children, it seems that nowadays, the value of bilingualism is being recognised more and more.

However, this is not to say that if a child is not raised in a multilingual home, they cannot and should not begin to develop sequential bilingualism from an early age, as research children’s brains are more susceptible to language-learning than those of adults. It has often been suggested that those who learn languages from childhood have fewer difficulties in languages later in life. Hence an increasing number of children are rightly being encouraged to learn foreign languages, either through extra-curricular classes or home-learning programmes such as the BBC’s Muzzy DVDs. It is hoped that such schemes will increase young people’s confidence when learning languages, and make them more likely to continue with the language into adulthood. Such schemes are invaluable. Despite coming from a distinctly monolingual family (shamefully, my mother’s favourite word whilst on holiday abroad appears to be “scoozee”) I was sent to French lessons after school from the age of eight, and I honestly believe that without this, the chances of my still being interested in languages whilst at university may well have been minuscule. I am by no means arguing that early language learning is fundamental to an interest in foreign languages, but surely acquiring some competence and – more importantly – confidence in another tongue whilst young cannot be such a terrible thing? It seems to me that where possible, it is of real benefit to an individual to be brought up bilingual, or at least be exposed to other languages.

This begs the question though: why exactly is it so important to learn languages? Of course, there are the obvious benefits of being able to travel without much concern for language barriers, and that infinite sense of satisfaction when you are able to have a functional conversation in a foreign country, without being forced to utter the somewhat humiliating “Parlez-vous anglais? Sprechen Sie Englisch? ¿Habla usted Inglés?” However, with the advent of increasing globalisation, there are other, more concrete benefits to multilingualism. Nowadays, employment prospects often increase significantly with proficiency in foreign languages.

Isabella Moore, Director of the National Centre for Languages said, “Young people need a strong basis in languages to be able to access international experience and to have confidence as players in a competitive jobs market.” Moreover, research in Canada has shown being multilingual increases a person’s chances of employment in the business, administration, tourism, leisure, sport, sales and services industries. As if this wasn’t enough, research projects carried out by the Universities of Ottawa and Aberystwyth have both indicated that bilinguals or multilinguals earn up to ten per cent higher salaries than  those of their monolingual counterparts.

Whether or not we were brought up learning languages, or exclusive use of our mother tongues, here in Edinburgh we are amongst the fortunate few presented with plenty of chances to start or continue learning languages. Outside courses, extra language courses, the TANDEM programme, the list goes on. So as the new year and the new semester get into a full swing, it’s time to make good on that resolution of learning or using a language that so many of us make. I am telling myself that I will use that French again, especially because today, it looks increasingly as though ‘me speak no [insert language here] just doesn’t quite cut it anymore.

[Originally published 19/01/2011,]


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