Educating the United Kingdom’s linguists of tomorrow

There is an often-held misconception that studying languages at higher education is only available to the privileged few and leads to limited career opportunities. It is true that many education providers in the United Kingdom, especially those located in more rural areas of the country, face the challenge of encouraging young people to pursue languages after the age of 16.

However, it’s not just the responsibility of these education providers to encourage language learning among young people; language service providers (LSPs) can also play their part. Both parties can work together to raise awareness of the importance of studying languages; the career opportunities available to language students; and the general impact that this form of study has on the economy and job market as a whole.


The current UK language learning landscape

Learning a foreign language can be tough. For some children, though, it can be more difficult than others, and for UK children, who only start their learning at age 11, it can be even more challenging. Combine this with learning the language for only three years, for a few hours a week, having your classes so spaced out that you forget what you learned during the last lesson and never actually getting to apply your skills — learning languages at school can be daunting and unappealing, even for the highly capable.

A recent report by the European Commission on “Language competences for employability, mobility and growth” noted that the percentage of students reaching the level of “independent user” in the first foreign language varies from 9% in the United Kingdom to 82% in Sweden. We can only really draw one conclusion from this: when it comes to modern foreign language learning, the United Kingdom must do better.

In their latest report, “The state of language learning in schools in England,” the Centre for British Teachers (CfBT) Education Trust and the British Council identified four key issues with learning languages in UK schools.

First, there is a growing tendency for schools to exclude some students from language learning, with access to such subjects often being linked to social advantage.

This affects mainly, but not exclusively, students aged between 11 and 16. The increasing tendency to excuse or exclude students from language tuition creates a growing overall impression that schools regard languages as dispensable. Reasons for exclusion are often associated with socio-economic disadvantage (poor performance, behavioural issues, feeling overwhelmed, lack of parental support and resources), and this is creating a widening gap in opportunities to learn modern languages.

Second, underprivileged schools suffer from a lack of language resources.

While resources in many schools may be slight when it comes to language teaching, it is the schools in the most deprived areas of the country that often suffer most. The size of the school habitually has a part to play in determining the type of provision. Language learning is not statutory for students below the age of 11; it depends entirely on the school, so those with a lack of resources will often see language programs as one of the first to take a hit. Languages are not high on these schools’ agendas, as they are not seen as a core subject, and this has to change if we really wish to yield results in this field.

Third, school performance measures and assessment systems are having a negative impact on the teaching of languages.

Too often, schools are being put under pressure to make difficult choices with regard to the language programs they offer. Decisions about whether language study should be compulsory, or whether it is even “appropriate” for certain students, are being taken not on educational grounds or with regard to the interests and potential of the students, but on the need of the school to do well against accountability measures and in national performance tables. Language teaching in schools is very much exam-driven. Many teachers are fed up with the format of examinations, which only appear to stifle the motivation of high-achieving students. Exam board structures tend to be very narrow; they lack interesting content and appropriate tasks. This surely contributes to the fact that fewer than 10% of school-aged students are going on to do any sort of language learning after the age of 16. Neither the examinations themselves, nor the way their results are used for school accountability, are currently working in the interests of improving language learning in schools.

Fourth, wider societal attitudes are adversely affecting students’ understanding of the value of languages, and discouraging students from seeing a modern language as a serious subject for study.

A lack of awareness of the value of languages is commonplace, not only in schools but throughout the United Kingdom in general. Influencers such as careers advisers, the media and parents have an important role to play and should help to explain how knowledge of a language can contribute to success with further studies and careers. The significance of wider societal attitudes should not be underestimated, since they have the power to undermine initiatives and efforts to encourage young people at all stages of their education to study a language.

While schools arguably have the biggest part to play in the study of languages amongst children, they are not the only influencers. The British Academy, for example, supports and champions excellence in the humanities and social sciences among UK schools.

In 2011, this institution launched a four-year program in order to raise awareness and highlight the importance of languages in study and in the workplace. Some schools really took advantage of this, and created ambitious projects such as LIFT: Languages: Inspiring Futures Together. Programs such as this targeted young people aged between 5 and 20 in the hope of raising awareness of the value of languages. The idea of such projects was to ignite enthusiasm and curiosity about language learning, and to teach an array of students a variety of useful language skills.


What can the language

services industry do?

In conjunction with educational institutions and government funded program, LSPs can reach out to young people in local schools, before they choose their course and examination options, with the intention of promoting languages as a valuable, realistic and achievable route for all.

Many localization industry leaders such as those in LocWorld, GALA and CNGL already have initiatives in place for recruiting talent into the industry. They work closely with higher education providers and the wider public to give students valuable resources and experiences within the industry, and support them through their learning, development and (ultimately) careers.

The language services industry has the power to influence school-aged children, and to persuade them of the power of learning languages. While we may not be able to change the ways schools teach languages, what we can do is encourage students to further their learning, and to make the most of resources available to them.

Teaming up on projects such as the LIFT program can be valuable for both parties. As part of these programs, LSPs can (and should) visit local schools and colleges and get as engaged as possible with the students. In turn, students can visit LSPs to gain firsthand experience on the type of work carried out by these often large-scale organizations.

It seems that while schools may do what they can to teach modern languages, what schools often fail to do is offer their students any insight into the types of careers available to them after having studied languages at a higher level. That’s where we can really help. Students seem to be greatly unaware of the language services industry, and assume that learning languages only opens up narrow doors into teaching or translating. What we can educate students on is that even if you don’t necessarily use your languages at your place of work, having a practical knowledge and understanding of how languages work is greatly beneficial in our field. We can influence the routes that students take in their future, and that should excite us all.

Giving formal presentations and offering insight is one thing, but we all know that the best outcomes can be gained from first-hand experience. Young people today often suffer from a chicken-and-egg scenario, whereby even to start their career path at the bottom of the ladder, employers are asking for real-life working experience. LSPs can offer work experience and internship placements to help students get some much needed hands-on experience and exposure to the language services industry. Internship programs are mutually beneficial, as LSPs can build relationships with schools and their students, enhancing recruitment opportunities for the future.


Why should we care?

For LSPs, assisting young people in this way can only be beneficial for the future of our industry. Not just for the future of our own organizations, but for the future of the country and the economy as a whole. The current UK language learning landscape has depressing implications for the country’s chances of competing in an increasingly internationalized employment market.

Learning a foreign language definitely makes you think about cultural differences, and the fact that other people are radically different. To be more aware of otherness is certainly one of the side effects of learning a foreign language which is not regarded at the moment as one of the core aspects of language learning.

In the British Council’s recent survey of worldwide companies, it was clear that those surveyed believed good language skills improved employability and intercultural fluency. These employers didn’t just value the bare ability to function in another language, but also felt that being able to adapt what you’re saying in different ways, having cultural sensitivity and also having an awareness of your own culture, were critical skills for anyone who wanted to work outside their country of origin — all of which are fostered by learning a language.

But given the many obstacles to students achieving at a foreign language in the United Kingdom, it’s hardly surprising that there’s been a dramatic drop off in the number of students choosing to continue modern language study after the age of 16. The ever-decreasing pool of students keen to develop language skills now serves the UK poorly when it comes to deepening our understanding of other people and societies.

So if it’s not for the future of your company, do it for the future of your country or your world.


What’s next for the

study of languages?

At the beginning of this academic year, the UK Department of Education made the provision of language teaching compulsory, stating that learning a foreign language is a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures. A high-quality language education should foster students’ curiosity and deepen their understanding of the world. The teaching should enable pupils to express their ideas and thoughts in another language and to understand and respond to its speakers, both in speech and in writing. It should also provide opportunities for them to communicate for practical purposes, learn new ways of thinking and read great literature in the original language.

In many other countries, young children don’t just do more hours of language learning in the classroom, they are also taught some of their other core subjects through the medium of that language. In some American schools, for example, children are taught some subjects half in English and half in Chinese. This type of immersion instantly improves curriculum content, and improves the learner’s motivation. It takes the pressure off striving for perfection in grammar and syntax, and allows students to enjoy their growing ability to understand and communicate.

It is also a shame how at present, in a country that has attracted migrants from across the world, bilingual children are not given the maximum opportunity to learn languages, and no plan has been put in place by schools or by the government for how these languages could be shared in the classroom. This means that in two or three generations, children with migrant heritage grow up to be monolingual, or only conversationally functional in the language spoken by their parents or grandparents. LSPs could greatly benefit from more provisions, resources and talent in these often rare languages.