Foreign Language Decline: Why is Language Learning on the Out?

We think we are preaching to the choir and repeating ourselves unnecessarily when we reiterate just how important it is for your career to have a second language on your CVs and resumes. As language lovers, we feel this is pretty obvious. It turns out, however, that that message is not actually being heard by all. We know we live in an international society and yet our thirst for language knowledge seems sated, even bitter now on our tongues. Why on earth aren’t people taking the language plunge when it’s so important? Could it be the rise in translation tools or just technology itself? Join us on a little speculation and see if our musing matches up with your own.

Leave those kids along

Photo via Wikimedia

Statistics for school age language learners, at least in the UK, are of no assistance. Those implementing the relatively recent Ebacc system in place of GCSEs boast proudly about a 20% increase in take up of students compared with its predecessor – much like most political parties are happy to tell us how much they have had to do to fix the mistakes of the previous party in power as justification for all of the things they aren’t doing. 20% is a tiny amount of renewed interest, and if you look to slightly older students, language take-up for post-16s is continuing its trend of a decade-long decline.

Is this student and parent apathy? The loathsome Little England Syndrome some of us of this once great nation have developed of late means our isolationist mentality of English is spoken everywhere so we don’t need to try is being passed on to the future generations. Add to that the constant tabloid vitriol against hard-working students by adults bemoaning how easy exams are nowadays when they themselves wouldn’t even know how to sit for current exams, and are unaware or plain uninterested in just how brutal the marking schemes have become. Then top it off with schools and colleges having to put more interest in hitting league table targets than making lessons engaging, useful and fun, and you have yourself the perfect storm of why bother.

GIF via Giphy

Student, teach thyself

Learning a language by yourself used to involve something that fell into either of these ends of the spectrum. One, evening classes in locations as variable as your local primary school and that church you pass by on the way home, deftly avoiding eye contact with the people outside the front of it offering you tea. Two, self-learning, involving thick, glossy books that usually came with some kind of media that you could listen to with a headset and slowly repeat merci, gracias, danke until your careful pronunciation morphed into something unidentifiable from the original word.

But now, learning languages is an interactive all singing all dancing beast. You can Skype with a tutor in their living room in Japan whilst you are in your kitchen. You can join online classes with virtual students and classmates from around the world (or country), with real life engagement on your screen for you to immerse yourself in. Books, music, films in your chosen language of learning, and online or face-to-face conversation exchanges where you force yourself to talk in anything but your own native tongue – options for learning feel almost endless.

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So with this apparent ease of learning, why aren’t we? As for school age learners, this attitude of England being the lingua franca has made us lazy. Our reliance on technology has told us there is no need. Brexit has taught us we don’t need another language – and potentially threatens native teachers even coming into the country to teach those that wish to learn. Did we forget that the key to successful trade and travel is good communication, and that communication means we have to understand each other enough to get along?

An online community

Photo via Wikimedia

Perhaps, as with many things we don’t expect it to, the internet will save us – or at least our languages. We spoke previously about technology replacing the need to learn language because it does the translation for us. But who doesn’t speak to an international friend or colleague and at least pick up the occasional word or phrase that becomes part of our speech, even if it is initially in jest. Who doesn’t, though it is awful to say, admire celebrities who Tweet support and love in foreign languages when there is yet another disaster somewhere in the world – and look to these neon gods, their words of wisdom, go out of our way to understand them (thank you, Google Translate) – and then make them our own?

These suggestions might not be the best cases for holding out hope that language learning decline may level out, plateau at worst, start increasing at best. But they are just that; they are hopeful. And with times being what they currently are, who isn’t holding out for a little hope, wherever they can get it?

Our final look at language learning decline will consider which languages are suffering most from loss of interest. And why Spanish is the language outlier in this scenario – could this hugely wide-spoken language possibly be our lingua franca of the future?