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Languages crises? Lessons from other Anglophone countries

  • 20 April 2020
  • By Megan Bowler

This blog was written by former HEPI intern and author of HEPI Report 123 ‘A Languages crisis?’, Megan Bowler. Megan is in her third year at the University of Oxford and has previously blogged for HEPI on topics from the gender divide in languages study to learning languages one at a time and the state of wellbeing for students on years abroad. In response to Megan’s initial paper, John Claughton shared some of his reflections from decades of learning and teaching alongside four further policy recommendations.

The state of language learning in the UK relative to other countries in Europe is certainly troubling. This is an important comparison although there are some obvious caveats to judging the UK in relation to non-Anglophone countries. (Ireland, however, is an especially pertinent example discussed further in A Languages Crisis?) Given the economic advantages of English as a second language, young Europeans are likely to reach a high level in school and / or in higher education and may experience English through popular culture as well. Individuals often accumulate knowledge of other European languages used in neighbouring countries or regions and those which have linguistic similarities to their mother tongue.

Isn’t the USA doing worse than us?

If other Anglophone countries are facing similar declines in languages skills, why should our ‘languages crisis’ matter? Arguably, this fact does not vindicate the UK’s apathy towards languages, but rather demonstrates that this is a pervasive and international problem. We should contextualise the UK’s situation as part of a wider global picture: people are relying on a small number of dominant languages and, since these (combined with online translation) appear sufficient, are becoming indifferent to the other advantages of learning foreign languages and preserving linguistic heritage. Applying lessons from successes and failures elsewhere can help to evaluate and improve the UK’s approach.

The USA’s low level of language skills are compounded by the absence of a national standard or strategy for language learning. In the USA requirements and uptake vary by state and school district, with a national average of 20 per cent of school students and 7.5 per cent of college students learning a foreign language. Higher education is suffering increasingly from this languages deficit – the Modern Language Association found that colleges lost 651 foreign language programmes from 2013 to 2016, exacerbating skills shortages in important areas such as trade and national security. Certainly, this affirms the importance of curriculum change and national strategy if languages declines are to be combated effectively.

Australia has similar difficulties with sustaining language learning in secondary school; there are also disparities across school types and regions. Although a shift from European to Asian languages in school curricula responded to strategic advantages of being able to communicate and trade with these countries, proficiency outcomes in these languages remain very poor. Learning is hindered especially by limited teaching time and the difficulty of attaining high grades, causing further declines in universities. Though exam entries in Mandarin and Japanese, for instance, are high among heritage learners, very few students without Asian heritage choose to study or gain proficiency in Asian languages. Engagement with European languages is also falling, correlating to changes in immigration trends and languages which are spoken at home. However, recent efforts and increased funding to promote early years language learning as an educational priority – comparable to recent developments in Scotland – are a positive step.

Canada and New Zealand – more positive examples?

As well as having both English and French as official languages, Canada also has a high number and variety of ‘Allophones’ (those with neither English nor French as their mother tongue) due to immigration growth, comprising 20 per cent of the population. Although English is most widely used, bilingualism in official contexts and governmental policy has improved language skills among younger generations. Demand for languages in the workforce is high and a requisite for government and public service roles. Multiculturalism is enshrined in law and has shaped education policy at a provincial level, such as the availability of second language education programmes and heritage languages in schools. Schools initiatives also teach pupils about indigenous cultures and languages and foster anti-racism. Social attitudes towards minority languages and their speakers correlate noticeably with learning outcomes. Better esteeming, rather than denying the usefulness let alone being ‘bothered’ by, multilingualism, and benefiting from the existing linguistic skills of immigrant communities is evidently a key part of the solution.

Canada’s facilitation of bilingualism without a detrimental impact on other language learning sets a pertinent example to Wales in particular. Furthermore, while use of the Welsh language is preserved by the government and through the education system, pupil apathy risks undermining these efforts. The growing impetus towards reviving indigenous language learning in New Zealand demonstrates the importance of engaging the younger generation, particularly school and higher education students, with languages and the histories and cultures they represent. Interest in the Maori language, te reo Māori, has increased dramatically in recent years, among people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. A desire to reclaim this linguistic heritage which was previously suppressed during New Zealand’s colonial past, and its growing usage in popular culture and technology, have increased the language’s prestige and mainstream appeal, with academic and extra-curricular learning opportunities in high demand. Canada (with the 2019 Indigenous Languages Act, and a growth of college and university learning programmes) and Australia are also increasingly concerned with preserving their wide variety of indigenous languages.

Conclusions

The UK should avoid regarding its languages situation as a sudden and peculiar ‘crisis’, not only because it is really a gradual and more complex series of shifts and declines, but also because there are inter-related causes and striking similarities to ‘crises’ in other Anglophone countries. Considering these in relation to the UK indicates the importance of five factors behind progress:

  1. Policy: Education policy can ensure language teaching in schools and higher education is protected and supported. Allocating funding to targeted schemes such as early years languages is beneficial for the learning process and for sustaining interest later in life. Absences of coherent and unified national strategies are demonstrably detrimental.
  2. Incentives: Impetus to learn other languages is often lacking for monolingual Anglophones. Higher education institutions can encourage language learning through accredited modules. Economic and career incentives also improve motivation and recognition of existing skills in workplaces (particularly public services and defence). However, combating this problem can require individuals being given more personal, political and cultural reasons to learn another language, as has been effective with te reo Māori.
  3. Opportunities: Progress is bolstered by the proactive efforts of individuals and higher education institutions to create language opportunities for students and the public. Decisions, for instance, to provide free teaching in particular languages, hold extra-curricular activities, set up initiatives in schools, or raise awareness among the public of endangered languages can have a meaningful impact. Technology – such as endangered languages on Duolingo – is also providing new opportunities.
  4. Multiculturalism: Positive attitudes towards multiculturalism result in the celebration of linguistic diversity and a sense that something valuable would be lost were we all to use one and the same language. Both curricular and heritage language learning suffer when foreign or indigenous languages are stigmatised.
  5. ‘Coolness’: Multilingualism is most successful when embraced by the younger generation. In the USA, Korean is the only language for which higher education enrolments have increased consistently between 2006 and 2016 – Korean music and television have increased cultural and linguistic interest. Improving awareness of indigenous languages is particularly successful when these are asserted as part of an inclusive cultural identity and feature in media and technology. Similar approaches have succeeded for Welsh and could perhaps also be applied to other foreign heritage or UK languages (such as British Sign Language, Cornish and Gaelic).

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