Will the Olympics help the study of languages in Britain?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Jul 17 19:32:36 UTC 2005

FRom the BBC News:

Will the Olympics help languages?
By Mike Baker

BBC News education correspondent

What will the London Olympics 2012 mean for education?  Clearly it should
encourage sport in schools but perhaps it could also provide a desperately
needed boost to improve our dreadful international record in learning
foreign languages? The arrival of competitors and spectators from all over
the world in an area of London that already has scores of community
languages could just shake us out of the complacent view that all anyone
needs is English. There are obvious opportunities for schools to link
language learning to Olympic themes.

Hitting the pocket

Schools could "adopt" a competitor or a national team. Languages could
become "cool". They need to. This week a report from CILT, the national
languages centre, showed the extent to which our poor competence at
foreign languages hits us in the pocket as much as it limits us
culturally. The report, Talking World Class, found the UK was last out of
28 countries for its people's ability to speak another language. It linked
this languages "gap" with the trade gap.

It found that while the UK exports more than it imports when trading with
English-speaking countries, that trade gap is reversed with non-English
speaking states.

Imports and exports

It also found that the UK sells proportionately more to countries where
English is widely spoken (The Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries)
than to those where English is spoken less often. In short, languages are
a barrier to successful marketing and selling - hardly surprising when a
survey found that 80% of British export managers could not deal
competently in even one other language.

There is an employment gap for individuals too. While only one in three
British graduates feel confident enough to work abroad, in other European
countries it is two out of three. So what is being done to close this
languages gap? The government's National Languages Strategy for England
set the aim of foreign language lessons for every eight to 11-year-old in
primary schools by the end of the decade.

Yet recent evidence suggest that even this relatively modest target could
prove too much. Research published last September shows that fewer than
half (44%) of English primary schools currently offer a foreign language.
This falls to just 35% of schools that offer languages during curriculum
time rather than in after-hours clubs.

The extremely low base from which we are starting is revealed by the stark
statistic that just 3% of schools give all pupils aged eight to 11 a
weekly languages lesson of at least 20 minutes. Teenage decline There is
scarcely better news in secondary schools. Since last year, languages are
no longer compulsory after the age of 14. Already there are signs that
growing numbers of schools and students are taking advantage of this to
drop languages.

Last year, CILT found that less than one-third of state secondary schools
required pupils to continue with a language to 16. Another more recent
survey suggests that some schools are also reducing language teaching for
11 to 14-year-olds. So it is a rather gloomy picture. However - as well as
the Olympics - there are some changes that have the potential to help
boost language learning.

>>From this September primary schools will be under a legal obligation to
provide non-teaching time to all teachers. This poses a major staffing
challenge for schools but one answer would be to employ language
instructors to take classes, releasing the class teacher for their
planning and preparation time.

Adult learning

Also from this autumn, schools will be required to teach "enterprise
education". Although primarily about developing business-oriented skills,
this could be broadened to include business language skills. The national
curriculum has been slimmed down so there should, in theory, be more time
for languages at secondary school.

But much will depend on the extent to which languages are seen as part of
the growing vocational curriculum. Meanwhile, for those of us who left
school with limited or non-existent language skills, there is still time
to do something. Around 200,000 adults currently take language courses
provided by adult education services.

But even here there is cause for concern: as government funding focuses on
training for 16 to 19-year-olds, colleges are now warning that adult
education classes will be cut. These will include language classes.
Overall the audit of Britain's language skills is pretty grim. We can only
hope that a wave of internationalism, stoked by preparations for the 2012
Olympics, will change things for the better. Now that would be an Olympic
legacy worth having.

Story from BBC NEWS:

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