Sprechen sie Deutsch? Why Britons should try harder

This year, the Department for Education is implementing another set of reforms for modern languages GCSEs. The government wants to see a stronger emphasis on culture, more opportunities for bilingual learning and ‘translanguaging’ skills for a future, global workforce. Currently, the UK loses £48 billion per annum because of people lacking language skills needed for international trade. This will only increase if language teaching doesn’t improve concurrently, especially since, in 2014, the British Council found that three quarters of people in the UK were unable to speak one of the ten ‘most important languages for the country.’ 

The power of languages has also never been more evident. With the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War and the resettlement of many in Germany, Canada and Sweden, for example, volunteers have started to implement language learning schemes to allow for the integration of refugees. The Goethe Institut states that ‘language is the key to integration, to taking part in social life, to beginning studies or in the labour market.’ A Department for Education report in 2014 held that more than 1.1 million children in the UK have English as their second language, speaking a different language at home from in school. These children have a huge advantage both cognitively and in terms of the opportunities they will have in their futures, and it’s important to value that they do have another language, that these are ‘real languages, living languages’ as Leszek Borysiewicz, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and a bilingual, expressed it.

However, not only does the way in which languages are taught in school need to be altered radically, but the general attitude to speaking foreign languages needs to change, too. In a political climate where Donald Trump declared that Muslims should be banned from America, speaking a foreign language can become a badge of ‘otherness’ and even more than that, an acceptance of another, invasive culture. As early as 2012, political economist Will Hutton wrote that a “command of foreign language shows the wrong priorities” according to certain groups since “it shows a willingness to work hard at understanding another culture, its language and mores. Real Americans don’t do that.” Foreign languages, because they are invested with emotional attachments and historical and cultural legacies, can be seen as evidence of the fact that people have not integrated properly into society. But really, the opposite may be true: the statistic showing the number of bilingual children in British society reveals that the rest of us are sharing some of this culture and that there must be a continual exchange between the culture of our country and the cultures of our people. 

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In April 2015, a study was published in Psychological Science suggesting that people perceive the world differently depending on the language in which they speak, something linguists have disputed for years. German-English bilinguals and monolinguals participated in it, showing that depending on language use, world view alters; due to a simple grammatical construction, German people tend to see actions as a whole such as walking to a car, whereas English speakers see only the action, walking. Depending on the language in which the German-English bilinguals were speaking, their perspective switched, perhaps proving in Panos Athanasopoulos’ words that the German worldview is ‘more holistic’ and raising another interesting point, that bilingual speakers can make ‘more rational and economic’ decisions in a second language, because first languages carry inherent biases. 

Speaking other languages and having a global perspective is becoming increasingly important in our world, something which is often overlooked or seen as controversial. Really, there are no reasons not to speak another language; not only does it change the way you think, or allow you to learn more about the world we live in, but – if that hasn’t convinced you – there are multiple studies which show that speaking more than one language has cognitive benefits too. Bilinguals cognitively age later and the onset of degenerative disorders linked to age also occurs up to five years later on average. For me, though, the ability to speak other languages is not important because of the associated cognitive benefits, but because it allows an exposure to a whole other way of life, a whole new way of thinking and the ability to talk to so many people in their own language – something which might not seem important in a world in which English is widely spoken, but must be, if the statistics concerning international trade are anything to go by. 

The government is aware that languages are vital to commerce, but the key point is being missed: that languages should be learnt for love and enjoyment, for personal interest and development rather than just governmental ambition. If they take this approach, maybe the ways in which languages are taught can finally be improved and the real advantages of speaking a different language disclosed. As Martin Hoffman once wrote, ‘to speak a single language is to be enclosed in one cultural possibility’.