Just why are we so bad at languages in the UK?

(226 Posts)
Tournament Mon 13-May-13 20:08:01

Ds2 in in y5 and has done Spanish on and off for nearly 3 years. He can count to 10, say hello and goodbye and sing a few songs. DS1 ys yr7 he did the same at Primary, but is now learning French and German. confused

We were on an activity holiday at Easter and met a really lovely German family. After dinner, our DCs ran back to the accommodation for the TV blush by the time we caught them up, they were playing Scrabble, with the German family, in English!

Their boys were 8 & 10 and both could communicate well in English at the start of the week. By the end of the week, I'd say they were both fluent.

I don't think my boys would even have tried hello/goodbye willingly.

deleted203 Mon 13-May-13 20:27:10

I think you've probably got it in one with the last sentence!

I don't know why it is, but many English people seem to dislike learning languages and just dismiss it as unimportant/they can't do it, etc. This seems to start at a very young age.

I loved languages at school - I was so excited to be learning French and German, and tried really hard in lessons. I was the only sad geek in my class who liked Latin. I still (30 years later) speak enough to get by in each language, despite using them very rarely. I will always have a go at any language, and if we are anywhere abroad I am desperate to learn at least the basics.

My DCs on the other hand resisted any attempt to get them to see it as 'cool' or 'exciting'. Despite being forced (by school) to take a language GCSE none of the eldest 3 appear to be able to remember anything more than your DS can say in Spanish.

As a teacher (History) I have a lot of students of different nationalities - and will always insist they teach me to say, 'Good evening, it's nice to meet you' at least in Czech, Polish, Lithuanian, Portuguese, etc so that I can proudly greet their parents in their own language at parents evening.

(Having said this, one of my 15 yo Hungarian boys taught me what I thought was the above phrase so I could greet his father who was coming to parents evening...I can now apparently say, 'You are very attractive - are you married? in Hungarian. Dad was hugely amused and translated for me!)

I do think that being exposed to languages from an early age is probably key, as is seeing a point to learning it - and the reason most Europeans speak reasonable English is due to having access to a lot of American TV, for instance.

pillowcase Mon 13-May-13 20:33:50

I'm not speaking for the UK, but as an Irish TEFL teacher in France I hear the French asking the same question. Why are they so bad at English? I think the answer is the perceived importance of languages. The French simply don't believe Eng is necessary, just like the English/Irish don't believe you need a language to get by.

The Germans/Scandinavians believe this. It's a given that they will speak English. None of this 'learn your colours' shit either, but proper communication.

I saw French TV interviewing teachers in a Swedish school and the teachers spoke perfect English. They showed a typical English class. Then they interviewed the pupils. They were only about 8 but they were able to answer the interviewers questions in English. Amazing.

Primrose123 Mon 13-May-13 20:40:16

Like Sowornout I learned French and German at school along with Latin. I did a degree in French and German. I loved learning languages. I loved going abroad and being able to speak the language. I don't know why languages are not seen as important. I would love there to be more emphasis on the importance of languages in schools.

I'm a languages teacher, and in my opinion a large part of the problem is that we simply don't learn our own language properly, which makes it very very hard to learn a new one.
It is sooo frustrating trying to teach English kids how to put together a sentence in French, when you really need to go right back to the basics of English grammar in order to explain it to them!

Tournament Mon 13-May-13 20:42:55

Ah, now I remember that at school holmes. I thought terms like past participle and pro-noun were specific to French, I had never heard of them in terms of English grammar.

My DCs do seem to know those terms from English though.

I visited an international primary school in France when I was about 16 and the primary 3 children were doing the same curriculum as standard grade (scotland) examinations.

I was appalled and it made me work so much harder. It's quite embarrassing.

Laquila Mon 13-May-13 20:46:35

Completely second what holmes said. There is little point trying to teach kids a second language if they don't know what a noun is!

I wonder also whether there's an elect of self-fulfilling prophecy here. I was crazy about languages at school, and did French and German, and then Italian at uni too. If I'd had a penny for every time someone English said to me "Oooh, they'll be crying out for you in the EU once you graduate!" I'd be bloody minted. As it was, it took me quite a while to realise that I was extremely unlikely to get a high-paying, high-flying linguist-type job in Brussels or Geneva, because all of these went to the Europeans who'd been bilingual since birth, or since not too long after, an dhow utterly immersed themselves in their second or third languages in order to really excel at them.

Hence I got a bit disillusioned and now do a job for which my languages are useful, but certainly not essential.

GrandeGueule Mon 13-May-13 20:49:25

It is very embarassing. And it's arrogant. I remember before my year 7 French trip a friend said the only thing you needed to be able to say in French is 'parlez-vous anglais?' . Her dad had told her that. I still cringe now over 20 years later when I realise that it is all too common an attitude.

Takver Mon 13-May-13 21:44:12

I can't answer why, but its definitely not a new phenomenon. In Three Men on the Bummel (sequel to Three men in a boat), written in 1900, Jerome K Jerome does a whole riff on how appalling language teaching is in British schools. In fact he even makes the same comparison with German teenagers' excellent English.

I honestly don't think language teaching is generally bad in this country any more. It's that we start from a point of such low awareness of language that is hard to get anywhere fast.
The attitudes mentioned above certainly don't help. It's noticeable that at the private girls' school where I taught for 10 years, languages were very popular, and parents were always clamouring for us to add Japanese to the 4 other languages we already offered. Whereas in state schools it's hard to get them to continue with one.

Portofino Mon 13-May-13 22:13:13

I don't think we teach it early enough. The language acquiring bit of of your brain switches off after a point. My dd is 9 and bilingual English/French. She is currently learning Dutch at school. They are like sponges when young. Plus you need regular use of the language to stand a chance of being even nearly fluent. 2 x 2 hours per week will not work. These foreigners have uk programmes streamed into their homes, most often with subtitles. That helps a lot. Add the pop music with English lyrics...

exoticfruits Mon 13-May-13 22:30:46

Other countries are exposed to English all the time in songs, on TV etc. If we had French sings playing everyday I expect we would be better at French.

exoticfruits Mon 13-May-13 22:31:04

Songs- not sings.

exoticfruits Mon 13-May-13 22:32:46

English is also a common language so that a Dutch person may communicate with a Spanish person in English.

SprinkleLiberally Mon 13-May-13 22:35:33

No second language is quite as widely useful as our first so our motivation to spend time and money on language teaching will not be there. I'm good at French but still look like a lazy arse in Spain or China.

In other places learning English helps them worldwide. Really useful.

weasle Mon 13-May-13 22:44:05

Yes, surely motivation has a big part. Those German DC you describe in the OP are growing up in a time when the USA is a dominant culture. Films songs books in English are everywhere and kidsWANT to watch/ dance to / read these things. Also their parents are often fluent in another language and so it is normalised.

I'm hopeless at languages despite trying.hmm

muminlondon Tue 14-May-13 00:00:24

I think firstly because in the UK learning languages is still considered an intellectual pursuit rather than a useful skill most people might find useful, and anyone could pick up if motivated. So that's offputting. There is this weird hierarchy with Latin and French academic languages but 'community languages' are ignored and at the bottom. You may be a native speaker of Polish or Punjabi, fluent in English, but at school the DfE considers you to be a pupil with a disadvantage worthy of measuring in the league tables.

And secondly, the motivation thing. It's not cool. We just don't see famous people speaking languages. I did find some footage here (bit long, and from the US) which I like because it shows actors like Jodie Foster speaking fluent French, Gwyneth Paltrow and Barack Obama speaking Spanish, Sandra Bullock speaking German, etc.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4S1d8bB9uQ

agreenmouse Tue 14-May-13 12:20:03

I am writing this with half an ear to the radio - Radio 4 Robert Winston 'The science of music' - fascinating!

I have moved countries countless times throughout my life, always attending local schools or sending my dcs to them. My dd was 2.5 when we moved to France. I was standing in a queue for the butcher's in a supermarket, with her in the trolley, soon after we arrived. She had hardly ever heard French before. The French man in front ordered his meat and my dd immediately repeated aloud the exact sounds he had made - it was so startling that he and others all turned round and stared at her.
She was practising and enjoying the sounds - before she grew older and became self-conscious as sadly we all do at some point or other.
I love language and exploring different sounds and I'm trying so hard to help children get started at an early age - it's an uphill struggle that's for sure!
A Green Mouse

wordfactory Tue 14-May-13 12:33:27

Learning MFL is not considered important in the UK. Many schools stopped making it a priority years ago!

We don't start our DC early enough for a start. And mean proper teaching, not a peri who comes in to primary once a week to hold up a teddy and shout 'Bonjour'.

We need to accept that learning a MFL is hard work. That it involves rote learning. Much hated these days!

We need to accept that DC who don't understand the rules of grammar, will never be good at a language. Learning phrases is not good enough. One needs the building blocks so one can apply it. What is the use of being able to say 'I recycle my newspapers' if one can't roll it out?

And finally, we need to accept that what constitutes an A* today is not a level of proficency!!!!

znaika Tue 14-May-13 13:09:02

I am interested in this, because I am considering a UK edu for my DD who is bilingual and I am very interested in languages. What I have noticed with the UK is that (along with so many other things!) is when Brits are good they are very, very good and when they are bad they are rubbish.

Loads of well educated and travelled British friends speak no languages at all, which I regard as strange, but as a native Russian speaker who has had lots of contact with expat groups in Moscow over the years, the Brits who can speak Russian are massively better at the grammar, accent and style than any other group (mostly comparing grads of Russian lang with other grads). So obv. they can be taught very well indeed. Why is this not universal? public schools? is there a state private school divide in this?

coppertop Tue 14-May-13 13:31:26

I suppose it doesn't really help that we live on an island. Our natural exposure to other languages is far more limited than if we were bordered by several other countries where the vast majority speak a different language to us.

As others have said, we also don't have much exposure to songs in other languages, except when Eurovision is on. Ask people to think of a pop song in another language and they'll probably say "Joe Le Taxi" or the German version of "99 Red Balloons". Not exactly helpful for learning language.

Schools don't have much time available in their timetables for other languages. They're too busy following whatever new policy the government has come up with. The Yr6 SATs are all about literacy and numeracy. Even science was left by the wayside. Foreign languages don't really stand much chance of success in primary school, and by secondary school age many children become too self-conscious to say anything in another language.

agreenmouse Tue 14-May-13 13:47:23

Sadly yes. There is also a huge difference between those who choose to carry on learning a language beyond school, and everybody else. English is such a dominant language that learning a second language has been neglected, but hopefully this will change.

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 14:59:54

"There is this weird hierarchy with Latin and French academic languages but 'community languages' are ignored and at the bottom. You may be a native speaker of Polish or Punjabi, fluent in English, but at school the DfE considers you to be a pupil with a disadvantage worthy of measuring in the league tables."

what a fascinating point and how true!

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 15:05:00

By the way, can I confess that I don't think learning a foreign language is at all important if you are fortunate enough to have English as your first language? It's useless in adulthood for 99% of learners because it has no function.

I think it's a nice cultural accomplishment, like playing the violin. I consider my own rote learning of French to have been pleasurable but nothing more - very similar to rote-learning 19th century poems.

Personally I would prioritise computer programming languages far above and beyond French, German, Italian, etc, which I would rank alongside my own subject of music in order of priority. Understanding a computer language now is, I think, the equivalent of what understanding a foreign language would have been in previous periods of history.

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