Tongue twisters

English
may be the dominant language of international trade, but Britain may soon be
stirred out of its complacency. Alison Thomas anticipates the findings of a
major new inquiry into Britain’s indifference to linguistics

After
trying for years to encourage more Britons to learn their language, the Germans
have finally thrown in the towel.

On
5 April North Rhine-Westphalia announced that English is to be introduced to
the curriculum from the age of six, and other states are expected to follow
suit. This is just one of countless similar initiatives worldwide as countries
respond to the inexorable advance of English as the dominant language of
international trade.

On
10 May, the Nuffield Languages Inquiry is expected to publish its conclusions
based on two years of extensive research into the UK’s capability in languages and
its predicted needs over the next 20 years.

Under
the joint chairmanship of broadcaster Sir Trevor McDonald and Sir John Boyd,
master of Churchill College, Cambridge, a panel of 12 educationalists and
business leaders has sifted through evidence submitted by hundreds of
individuals and organisations.

In
addition the team has met with ministers and senior officials and conducted
interviews with employers across the UK.

The
picture it paints is unlikely to be a rosy one. But does it really matter when
other nations are going to such lengths to improve their command of English?

Alan
Moys, secretary of the inquiry and former director of the Centre for
Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT), believes that it matters
a great deal.

“Our
findings reveal that when export companies audit their language needs and
develop a coherent language and cultural strategy their performance improves,”
he says. “This confirms research conducted by the DTI over the years.”

Negotiating

Hugh
Morgan Williams, chairman of audio equipment company Canford Group and one of
the panel members, agrees. “A sales representative may well be able to use
English when negotiating a contract,” he says. “But what about the people who
operate that contract – how linguistically competent are they?

“Take
the case of Airbus, which translates 20,000 pages of technical information into
the language of the buying company whenever it sells a plane. Or Procter and
Gamble, which this year will recruit 70 multilingual accountants for its international
business centre in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Whoever would have thought that
accountancy needed a language qualification?”

These
are just two of a growing number of companies no longer prepared to make do
with a monolingual workforce. Faced with a dearth of suitably qualified
applicants at home, they are filling vacancies with recruits from abroad, who
can switch from one language to another with ease.

The
single market makes this approach viable and solves the problem in the short
term. But it has ominous long-term implications for the job mobility of
otherwise well-educated British professionals.

As
globalisation takes hold, traditional British attitudes are changing. A recent
NOP survey showed 86 per cent of respondents believed having knowledge of a language
is useful, and the inquiry picked up evidence to suggest young professionals
are increasingly aware of the disadvantages of remaining monolingual.

This
is borne out by the growing demand for university language courses to support
other disciplines, although provision is patchy and quality unreliable. And it
is the only glimmer of light in an otherwise bleak educational scenario.

“The
messages we received from people in business contain little reference to the specifics
of training, which is generally of good quality,” says Moys. “What does concern
them is the failure of the education system to deliver what they need. At the
moment there are notable hiccups and gaps which have a devastating effect on
the language competence of young people going into employment.”

The
problems are numerous and deep-seated. British children only start a language
at the age of 10 or 11. Most study only one, and nine out of 10 drop languages
altogether at the age of 16.

In
recent years a sharp decline in the number of A-level language students has led
to dwindling numbers of specialists in higher education, which in turn is
creating difficulties in teacher recruitment.

“Many
of our recommendations will be aimed at securing a stronger, more evenly spread
language capability among young people emerging from education,” says Moys.
“This has implications for world of training. One of the central objectives of
school education as defined by the National Curriculum is to prepare young people
for further language learning in adult life. At present, this is not
happening.”

Crisis

Morgan
Williams puts it more strongly. “Languages are in a state of crisis,” he says.
“We wouldn’t expect someone from college to be able to operate our software –
it’s our job to train them. But we expect them to know how to use a keyboard.

“The
analogy holds true for languages. If the education system provides the building
blocks, we can add the technical, job-specific training.”

As
business leaders slowly wake up to the seriousness of the situation, what can
they do to further their cause?

“They
can bang the drum,” he says. “Impress upon young people that having a language
makes them more employable. They can also encourage best practice, sponsor
scholarships and reward language students financially.

“Above
all, they must keep telling the Government that this is an important issue that
won’t go away.”

Although
the team is not giving much away before publication, it makes no secret of the
fact that it will recommend a fundamental rethink to ensure a coherent and
continuous pathway from primary through to higher education.

Morgan
Williams says, “It is not a question of short-term solutions but analysing
where we need to be by 2020 and working out how to get there.”

This
will require cohesive, co-ordinated policies from the Government, a message it
took on board last year when it instigated an inter-departmental committee of
ministers and senior officials to debate language issues. Time will tell if it
is prepared to carry the principle through.

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