Great Britain or little Britain?

The British are notorious for their lack of language skills, in fact, according to a survey published by The British Council, 78% of people in Britain are unable to speak a foreign language.

Learning a foreign language is difficult, right?  Yes it is.  Especially in Britain where language tuition begins at 11 years old and you give it up 3 years later, where the subject has the least amount of priority on the national curriculum, where you get one hour of tuition (two, if you’re really lucky) and you have no opportunity to put what you have learnt into practice.

20131001 Great Britain or little Britain 1 Clare Jordan - photographer - Clare Jordan

Cathy Moscardini started learning Spanish at the age of 11 at school and has since pursued this to University level alongside learning Mandarin.  Cathy comments that “I started to learn Mandarin when I was 19, at University, and although it is possible to learn at that age, I will never be fluent or get to the stage where I am completely happy with my language ability”.  It is scientifically proven that the younger that you learn a language, the easier it is.  Cathy also states that if she had started to learn a language from a younger age then it would have been far easier to have got to grips with the different tonal system and probably would not have to spend so many hours practising her pronounciation.

44% of Britons would like to learn a foreign language.

So, what is going on?  In Britain, no child is required to learn a language before secondary school level and since 2004, a new ruling has declared that it is no longer compulsory to learn a language at GCSE level.   Since the 2004 ruling, there has been a sharp decline in language learning, with French and German suffering the most.  For those who do make it until GCSE level face a dull and limiting syllabus that does not deal with interesting topics and lacks exercises to help engage students.  A survey suggests that 44% of Britons would like to learn a foreign language but this seems an unrealistic ambition when language learning is not an educational priority and something which is not supported by the government.

Even OfSTED, the official organisation which inspects and regulates education in the United Kingdom, has described language learning in British schools as “weak” and has highlighted concerns about the decrease in the number of young British people being able to speak a second or third language.

Katie Mitchell, another student of Spanish, recalls back to her time in school.  She wanted to study, both Spanish and French, at GCSE level but was told that she was not allowed to.  She was told that if she wanted to learn French then she would need to do so in her own time.

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The British, generally, are very bad at learning languages but it isn’t surprising when the very problem lies in the core of our education.   Cathy says that, “Brits are generally not great at learning languages, it’s not because we don’t have the ability to do so but rather, because our schools do not encourage it as they should.  Why doesn’t the government implement a policy where our children should start learning languages from the beginning of primary school or even, encourage the use of multilingual nurseries?”.

In other European countries, other subjects, besides those dedicated to language learning, are taught in the target language, which contribute to the large success of foreign language tuition.

Language isn’t just about communication, it is also about opening your mind

Communication is not the only thing that you can gain from learning languages, it serves as a medium to open your mind.  Through her studies, Cathy had the opportunity to study abroad for a year in, both, Spain and China.  She said, “for me, being able to speak a language when I visit a country allows me to experience that country and it’s culture to the full, as I can talk to people, who do not speak English, at ease, and the conversation is much more profound than the conventional “I’d like one beer please”.”    Cathy also states that learning a language and being abroad has broadened her horizons and increased her self-confidence and feels like  “she no longer knows any limits to what she can do”.

20131001 Great Britain or little Britain 3 Clare Jordan - photographer- Cathy Moscardini

Cathy also says that, besides the aforementioned, it is polite when visiting another country to try and speak their language; it shows the utmost respect for their language and culture, sensitivity and understanding and a desire to learn about their country. British people always expect people to speak English when they visit Britain so it’s only right that they expect us to speak their language too.

However, apart from the lack of investment in the British education, the problem also rests further afield.  English is a very dominant language, spoken by millions of people worldwide; but for those who do have the desire and will to learn a language will always come across people who wish to practice their English, which is often at a higher level than a Brit’s second language.  Katie remembers that during her year abroad, she would always try and practice the local language but other people would respond in English, perhaps due to a lack of faith in the British ability to speak another language.  Katie also adds that, during her year abroad she felt at a disadvantage compared to other European students.  She said that she felt that there was a huge difference between her level of Spanish compared to that of other European students.  She also stated that she was often too shy to speak in Spanish, because it was the first time that she had had the opportunity to put her language skills into practice.

In Britain it is hard to find additional resources to aid language tuition.  The price of language textbooks are extortionate and due to the dominance of English in mainstream popular culture, it is very difficult to find films, books or music in a different language.

20131001 Great Britain or little Britain 4 Clare Jordan - photographer - Clare Jordan

In a time of economic uncertainty, it seems foolish to not invest in languages

The future of language learning appears to be bleak in Britain.   In a time of economic uncertainty, it seems foolish to not invest in languages, especially with the economies of Germany and China growing at an extremely fast rate. It is not acceptable to assume that the rest of the world can continue to accommodate our lack of language skills, which are uniquely bad, especially during a time where other countries are stepping up and learning more languages, such as students in Latvia who are learning German .   Britain is under-represented amongst many institutions in the European Union and this does not look to improve anytime soon.    Britain is only a small island which is, geographically, isolated from the rest of Europe, but Britain is at risk of isolating itself even further by the lack of language acquisition and this is something that desperately needs to be amended.

Disclaimer: Cathy Moscardini is a translator at Meeting Halfway. We still would have told this story if she wasn’t.



Clare Jordan (England)

Studies: German and Spanish

Speaks: English, German and Spanish

Europe is… a fascinating continent rich in culture, with the foundations of incredible history and with the aspirations of a bright future.

Author: Anja

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