foreign language
Are some predominantly English-speaking countries in a foreign language “crisis”? Source: Shutterstock

Cities such as those within the UK and US are bastions of cultural diversity in the Western world. But to remain competitive in the global economy, citizens will need to be culturally empowered to succeed.

Typically monolinguistic societies can benefit from mastering an additional language, especially those in primarily English-speaking nations. English may be the world’s lingua franca but speaking an additional language can help build relationships with the world, meeting economic, geopolitical, cultural and educational needs. 

But how many countries are prepared to meet this demand?

Some countries lag behind 

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Studies suggest children must start to learn a new language by the age of 10 to achieve the fluency level of a native speaker. Source: Shutterstock

David Cannadine, President of the British Academy said: “With Brexit just around the corner, it is critical we start to value languages and wake up to the enormous advantages multilingualism can bring. Languages are essential for trade, business and the economy.”

Some of the top languages that UK employers are seeking among graduates include German and French. Since 2016, the demand for German language skills by UK employers has risen by 11.59 percent, while Chinese has soared by 35.39 percent. 

Meanwhile, a 2018 study from the Pew Research Center said Europe consistently beats the US in foreign language education in schools. A median of 92 percent of European students are learning a foreign language in school, while the figure is 20 percent in America. 

The report added that most primary and secondary school students across Europe study at least one foreign language as part of their education.

Of the 29 European nations for which data are available, 24 have a foreign language enrolment rate of at least 80 percent, with 15 of those reaching 90 percent or more. Luxembourg, Malta and Liechtenstein are among the countries with the smallest student populations, but with 100 percent of students reportedly learning a foreign language.

Even in the European countries with the lowest overall shares of students learning a foreign language, most students learn at least one foreign language before completing secondary school, said Pew Research Center.

Learning foreign languages should be a priority

In the UK, Professor Mike Kelly, a languages advocate, expert and advisor to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Modern Languages said the UK’s “language blind-spot” is costing them a lot of lost business.

Quoting British Council’s Languages for the Future report, Kelly said languages need to be strengthened in colleges and universities by protecting language departments, as more than 50 universities in the UK have cut courses or scrapped departments entirely since 2000.

The US is in a similar predicament. 

Quoting data from the Modern Language Association, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported early last year that US colleges closed more than 650 foreign language programmes from 2013 to 2016.

Dennis Looney, director of programs MLA, said he feared this trend will continue into 2020.

Indiana University President Michael McRobbie said on Education Dive that institutions must expand their language offerings which would also enhance their global awareness.

Speaking about the MLA report, he said the numbers suggest that the US has failed to recognise how critical strong language competence is to their economic competitiveness and national security.

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