Is Britain really as monolingual as they say?

I keep reading about those A-level stats. Apparently, « the number of teenagers taking traditional modern foreign languages at A-level fell to its lowest level for more than a decade » (TheGardian.com, 15 August 2013). Everybody is freaking out. I did too. At first. Now, I’m wondering : « Is Britain really as monolingual as they say? »

Why this drop in number of A-level students studying foreign languages?

So, the bad news is « entries to German were down 11.13% compared with last year, while French fell by 9.9% ». OK. That doesn’t sound good and you can get concerned. But why are those numbers going down so dramatically?

In a invigorating article entitled Let’s make learning languages cool again, Livia Mihai sums up why British children avoid studying languages

  1.        Languages are complex subjects and may be unpredictable, unlike maths or other exact sciences.
  2.        Languages may be marked too harshly, which leads to pupils performing lower overall, and nobody wants this.
  3.        Pupils might not consider language learning useful, due to the overall notion that everybody else speaks English.
  4.       The ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude is still prevalent in Britain. So trying something publicly, like speaking in a foreign language in front of your peers, can cause a lot of embarrassment.

I’d like to add a few things here.

I’ve been studying Hindi at uni for about four years and our teachers kept telling us: « Language is not enough ». They kept pushing us to study other subjects. So, several of my classmates enrolled in other degrees. It was a hell lot of work to handle two bachelor degrees at the same time and most of them eventually drop out Hindi classes, never taking the exams. But does it mean they completely stopped learning Hindi? Not really.

So, maybe British students saw that coming. Maybe they considered it would be a better career choice to get a degree in law or economics and then add language skills to their curriculum. Language skills that they wouldn’t necessarily acquire at school.

The Guardian article also points out that, despite the decline of German and French, Spanish was doing quite well with a 4.08% increase. Spanish is known for being easy (I’m not saying it is…), at least easier than French and German. This perception of the language could be an explanation for those stats. Maybe other languages are also gaining interest. Arabic and Russian are mentioned in the article. What about Chinese? It seems to be a very popular language these days.

There is maybe another reason why British students avoid studying languages: they might just find it boring! Yes, that’s right: boring. Don’t get me wrong: I love learning languages. And I think it is a deeply enriching process. But when I was in high school, I wasn’t there yet. Not even close. To me (and most students I guess), it was dull, a real pain in the a**. It was all about grammar rules and vocabulary lists. I was probably too young to understand the benefit I could get out of it. And after 9 years (your heard me right, 9 years) of studying English at school, I was still unable to have a simple conversation. How frustrating is that?

At the age of 17, I started travelling. And geez, did I love it! Suddenly, all this language stuff made sense. It took on a whole new dimension. I remember perfectly that day when I was unable to get the word « window » out of my mouth. That day, I decided I will get back to English and learn it properly. And I did (at least to a decent level, not native like). And I started Hindi. And then Japanese. And so one.

So maybe those A-level stats are just giving us an inaccurate picture? Maybe Britain is not as monolingual as it may seems. We travel more than ever, so maybe British students are still learning foreign languages. Just not at school.

Maybe my intuition is wrong. But when I read about those amazing polyglots, I just feel hope and excitement:

« Natural born linguists: what drives multi-language speakers?« 

And you know what? 3 out of the 4 polyglots portrayed here are from English speaking countries (2 of them, you get it, from Britain)!

The importance of language classes

But, cause there is a but, it doesn’t mean language classes aren’t important. Even though they can be boring and dull. I still think there is a lot to do here, but I’m also convinced those classes are invaluable. Yes, I know, I said I hated them while in high school. But I’ve come to know what they offered me: basic knowledge. And somehow, a taste of the language. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t the language I hated. But the way it was taught. As soon as I understood that, I was able to use those 9 laborious years studying English at school, to build my knowledge upon it. They became my springboard.

In France, English classes are mandatory. We also have to learn Latin (or Greek if you are lucky) and another modern language, most often Spanish or German. And despite all the flaws of the educational system, it is a good thing. It opens our eyes on other cultures. It can trigger our curiosity. An appetite for language that will bloom, one day or another, in that very class or, more likely, at the other side of the world.

It is not the end of the world if British students stop to take their A-level in French or German as long as they get that taste of the language, as long as we find a way to trigger their curiosity, their appetite for languages. There are so many ways, so many places to do that. School is only one of those. But an important one indeed.


This is my first real post in English on this blog. The subject lent itself to a try. I’m aware that my writing in English is far from perfect and that’s exactly why I’m trying to improve by not writing this article in my comfortable French. So, I’m sorry if I somehow mistreated that beautiful language. Feel free to suggest any improvement in the comments below. Thanks!

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