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Language learning in the 21st century


We need to review our concept of how we apply language learning in the 21st century.

When someone asks me where I work, the response my answer generally elicits is “Wow, that’s cool. How many languages do you speak?” Not an entirely helpful question when you work for a company that works in over 200 languages. On the other hand, it is helpful if you want to start a conversation about language learning and how to make the most of this key skill.

I was sad to see a recently released report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) pointing at a notable decline in the uptake of modern foreign languages by British students. (See here for a Guardian article that analyses this report comprehensively.) It follows another report in 2013 entitled ‘Languages: The State of the Nation’, which highlights a ‘vicious cycle of monolingualism’ in the country. It looks at how our inability (or unwillingness) to recognise the importance of languages has a direct impact on the labour market and, in turn, our increasingly outward-facing economy.

Looking at it simply: in Britain we are not as good at languages as our neighbours are, and it is probably because we do not have to be. International trade is generally conducted in English. Likewise, our neighbours rely on foreign language skills as a means to conduct the same international trade. If necessity is the mother of invention, then language learning is clearly one of her best creations. But here in Britain we don’t need it.

Or do we? What happens when you conduct business with only one country? Surely then ardent monolinguals need to be more sensitive to their business partners’ desire to communicate in their own language. HSBC’s ‘The World’s Local Bank’ advertising campaign in airports advocates this approach for even the biggest of firms if they are to be seen as in tune with local language and customs. How do we achieve this in a nation where speaking a foreign language involves shouting louder at the person in English until they understand?

A friend of mine, a lecturer in Spanish and Intercultural Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, mentioned to me the other week that, whilst Higher Education funding for modern languages was dropping at a surprising rate, it should not be seen as entirely negative. Rather, we should take a fundamental look at how we learn languages in the 21st century. Gone are the days where university degrees constitute a piece of paper with which you can walk into any job. Degrees, especially those involving languages, should be more applied or vocational. That is, they ought to be geared towards an actual working discipline, rather than just a vague “field of study”.

Language learning has given me the opportunity to be in the situation I am today. I work in a vibrant, multinational workforce. Many of my colleagues speak an intimidating number and variety of languages. However, I do not believe that we are in this job only because of our degrees in modern languages, or for our ability to speak multiple tongues. Rather, it is how we have applied that knowledge. So, the next time someone asks me how many languages I speak, I really hope they also ask me precisely what it is that I do with them.


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