UK foreign language students often leave school barely conversational in the languages they study, according to a new study from the Guardian. The survey polled 1,001 students and former students to gauge their attitudes toward learning foreign languages and their experiences with the UK school system. The results were not good, to say the least. Some lowlights:
- 8 in 10 students who studied popular languages in school said they were only able to understand “basic phrases.”
- 4 in 10 who studied Spanish, Italian, Russian and Japanese felt they would have have difficulty “understanding, speaking or writing anything.”
Ouch! And before you start blaming “kids today” for not being motivated enough, keep in mind that 3 out of 4 students agreed that “languages provide a valuable understanding of other cultures” and 7 in 10 had a goal of learning a foreign language in the future. So what’s going on? The Guardian implies that the way language classes are structured and taught isn’t helping students learn the practical conversation skills they value, and that schools don’t treat languages as important. Experts quoted in the article differ on whether the upcoming reforms to A-Level language classes will help or hurt. The Guardian concludes:
With a clear conflict emerging in the Guardian’s poll between young people’s interest in languages and a sense that their studies are not matching their aspirations, it remains to be seen whether the reforms can rescue language study in the UK from terminal decline.
Ouch! In an ironic twist, the survey also showed that while 1 in 5 UK students are bilingual with a home language other than English, their built-in language skills are not being recognized and rewarded by the school system. Even more depressing, almost 40% of these students don’t consider their home language an advantage. According to Cambridge University’s language centre directer, Jocelyn Wyburg, negative attitudes toward non-native English speakers may be to blame:
“I’ve talked to young people who don’t want to admit they have another language or, if they have a qualification won’t put it on their CV. They’ve been reluctant even to be proud of it.”
What can the UK can do to help students learn foreign languages in school, and to help students who already know a foreign language value the knowledge they have? Let us know in the comments!