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The Language Question: Addressing UK’s Achilles’ Heel

The Language Question: Addressing UK’s Achilles’ Heel

Foreign languages are some of the decisive skills for a global career. We explore the ways in which we could reshape and aide bettering Britain’s international communication skills.


The BBC this week noted that there was an acute handicap in the United Kingdom pertaining to possessing effective communication skills in foreign languages. It called it an ‘alarming shortage of foreign language skills in UK’. Now, the real question is, how do we address this issue?


The Problem: Britain’s approach is erroneous

Fay Drewry, Managing Director of The Language Gallery, says, “With approximately 1 billion English language speakers in the world, non-native speakers now outnumber native speakers by 3 to 1. The comparative ease with which the rest of the world is acquiring English skills whilst UK remains a largely monolingual nation, can be attributed more to the way in which we teach languages in schools, than our innate inability to learn foreign languages.”

According to a recent report published by the British Council, majority of the UK population cannot hold a conversation in one of the 10 most important languages. The Guardian states that there is a shortfall in the languages the UK needs the most.

“English, for the last 25 years, has been taught using the Communicative Method, which focuses on fluency and speaking, and builds confidence in the second language. Whereas in the UK our approach has been somewhat outdated, presenting language as a set of grammar rules to be digested and memorised,” states Ms Drewry.

Is it time for us to acknowledge that the problem is far more deep-seated than we would like to admit? Should we be asking, are we really teaching languages the right way?


The Effect: UK suffers economically

John Worne of the British Council described the possession of functional communication skills in foreign languages as ‘liberating’. Besides the obvious impact foreign language skills have on easing our capacity to interact with foreign cultures, it also grants us an increased level of global mobility.

The lack of language skills in the UK does not just adversely affect our communication skills but also has a negative impact on our economics. A Sky News article recently stated that poor language skills were hampering the UK economy. It went on to warn that if language-instruction was not given the same priority as maths and sciences, Britain’s economic prosperity may suffer both in the short and the long term.

This doesn’t make for good reading, especially in light of our understanding that the strongest impact will be felt with British workforce participation at skilled or highly-skilled levels. Along with the fact that half of recent UK graduates are stuck in non-graduate jobs, the restricted mobility component risks also reducing prospects of UK graduates in the global marketplace.


The Solution: We must rejuvenate our teaching methods

Earlier this year the British Council challenged everyone in the UK to learn at least 1,000 words of a new language. Though a positive step forward, this doesn’t address the root of the problem – UK’s approach to language instruction.

A reformulated approach to foreign language tuition might just be the crucial element, the ‘X’ factor, in successfully addressing this issue. “Inevitably from school to adulthood, along with the fact that ‘most people speak English’, Britons have been put off from skilling-up in this area and now face the challenge of competing with those who not only speak two languages fluently, but potentially three or four,” notes Ms Drewry.

The importance of foreign languages is undeniable, but we need more avenues to access. “At The Language Gallery we not only teach English using the Communicative Method, but we also use the same techniques to teach Spanish, and in 2014 will be offering Italian, French, German, Arabic and Chinese,” adds Ms Drewry.

Therein lies the answer. Not only do current and future students need to be taught English with a different approach but that approach needs to be replicated to infuse a sense of multilingualism into the very fabric of every tier within UK’s education system.

And the sooner we address this, the better.


The Language Gallery offers a bevy of language instruction courses across multiple locations in the UK, catering to English-learners as well as those who desire to learn foreign languages. For more information, visit: http://www.thelanguagegallery.com/

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