The UK is not just “stuck in the relegation zone of European language skills” (editorial, 4 November); there is also a huge cost to British businesses in depending on English. Government figures show the UK economy loses around £50billion a year in failed contracts due to a lack of language skills in the workforce. Yet, studies abroad show that GDP can increase by around 10% if native bilingualism is exploited. But that’s not all that is lost. In the words of Richard Hardie, senior adviser at investment bank UBS: “A thorough understanding of foreign languages is often essential to the combination of cajoling and seduction that many companies require in their international dealings.”
Native English speakers cannot simply rely on the desire of the rest of the world to learn their language. Just as monolingual Britons won’t grasp the intricacies of interactions in international affairs, neither will they know what gets lost in translation. Post-Brexit trade deals with China, Russia and other developing markets will mean missed deals for the UK if negotiations are only conducted in English.
The time is over for strategic investment in languages – the magnitude of the losses is already known.
Author of Linguanomics: what is the market potential of multilingualism?
The linguistic situation of the British is even worse than your editorial suggests. As the French Academy squabbles over details such as the acceptability of gender-neutral text (French language council says ‘no’ to neutrality, November 4), making it unlikely that French will replace the English as the world’s primary lingua franca, the English used by the vast majority who speak it as their preferred second language, and which probably accounts for more than 80% of English users worldwide, is not the of British (or American, or any other) native English speakers: this is the phenomenon known as English as a lingua franca.
And research over the past 20 years amply shows that English as a lingua franca differs in many ways from native English. It also shows that native English speakers, who expect the world to speak “their” English, are often poor communicators of English as a lingua franca, unlike non-native speakers. So, in addition to needing to learn other languages, Britons need to learn how to use English effectively with the majority of English speakers in the world.
Professor Jennifer Jenkins
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, it touches his heart,” Nelson Mandela said. Say no more (except maybe he should have said a woman or a man).
As a lifelong linguist, I agree that the dwindling number of students learning languages is a cause for concern. Being able to converse with someone from another country in their native language is the only way to fully understand what makes them unique and how they are both the same and different from us. But the difficulties of learning another European language these days are underestimated, and I fully sympathize with young people when they don’t care. When I first moved to Germany in 1978, the cost of an international phone call home was prohibitive and there was only German on TV. True, there were quite a few Germans who spoke better English than I German, but you could avoid them if you tried. It was harder to avoid my English classmates there, which held back my language development for a while. Today there is the Internet, with its round-the-clock access to home and friends via social media and news.
Your editorial was devoid of solutions to this problem, and I too find it difficult to see a way to reverse the trend, but the answer must lie in a drastic change in attitude towards the teaching of languages in education policy. Recent governments have paid lip service, never giving the impression that they really care. After all, when was the last time we had a foreign minister who spoke French or German? Nick Clegg’s multilingualism was at least a reason to regret his departure from parliament. The time has (again) come to make it compulsory to learn a foreign language at GCSE and to make students aware that maths, science and English, important as they are, are not the only ones pathways to professional and personal fulfillment in life.
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