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.

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 15:06:41

sorry, me again. Would I also be right in thinking that many more girls than boys study MFL? And that whilst they are doing so, the boys are learning skills that will give them better paid jobs?

RealityQuake Tue 14-May-13 15:09:41

The whole "have to learn additional languages early/language learning switches off after a certain age" is a myth. It has been disproven repeatedly - adults learn languages faster and better. The only thing that must be done early is learning a mother tongue well, not additional languages.

I agree that languages are still treated like an intellectual pursuit (and many are pushed away from it due this and the many [[http://www.fluentin3months.com/reasons/ myths about needing language learning to be perfect its worthless which scares people off).

The UK education system and larger social systems don't really push a reason for learning a language other than it might be good on holiday and learning anything is good for you. If we had a steady reason for why we want to learn languages and passed that on, as other countries do, then things would likely change.

burberryqueen Tue 14-May-13 15:11:05

the teaching of languages is a joke - my children did French (why?) in primary school with essentially the same curriculum repeated for three years (you know, one to ten, a couple of songs) - the only extra language my daughter has done at secondary school has been Welsh as she has been deemed to dim for more, she has been doing it for three years and can say 'I like horses'. Oddly she is rather good at languages and can understand her Polish granny no problem. So i think it is a problem with the teaching and expectations and attitudes of the schools.

Bramshott Tue 14-May-13 15:14:43

I think a lot of it is geographical (and of course cultural). I was really struck travelling to Belgium recently how naturally they all speak several languages (Dutch/French/English), but of course it's because they have no option because all of those languages (except English, which is useful for tourists from all over) are spoken around them all the time. Contrast that with rural western France where we holiday most summers, and most people only speak French, with a smattering of English.

We don't get TV in other languages easily over here, and we're not routinely exposed to people speaking other languages the way someone living near a country/region border is, so it's not that surprising really.

Then add into that the deeply conflicted relationship we have with Europe and it all adds up sad...

Xenia Tue 14-May-13 15:15:44

English children are lazy and allowed to be so whereas many countries do not allow that. You have to learn a lot of vocabulary off by heart whereas you can do a good few other subjects without too much hard work so not surprisingly my local comp goes in for subjects like travel and tourism GCSE, car mechanics, beauty etc.

One of my sons say part of the problem is being taught in the language which is why he preferred latin which was taught in English so he could understand what he was being taught.

It may also be a question of your interests. I remember read the Chalet School series of books as a teenager where the children were taught in French, German and English total immersion in their Swiss school and thinking it would be good to know all 3 languages too so I was pretty good at French and did German A level. it probably in part sprang from those books and also the fact our mother was keen on France and the French and had French words written around the house when we were at primary school age.

Bramshott Tue 14-May-13 15:16:23

Sorry - realise coppertop has said the same thing lower down!

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 15:17:27

but the Belgians have no option! If everyone spoke Flemish, Flemish people could get on with doing something else!

This has nothing to do with laziness. And I do think that women are being distracted into courses like MFL and music and not being told that these are courses with less well paid jobs at the end of them.

Xenia Tue 14-May-13 15:22:01

Come on - it is much much harder to learn a massive list of French vocab by heart than waffle on about a History "sources" material which is sitting in front of you.

Bramshott Tue 14-May-13 15:22:17

Yes - I guess that is the case with Flemish grin!

I don't agree with your point that "It's useless in adulthood for 99% of learners because it has no function" though - surely most people working in business have call to use a language from time to time? I mostly operate in English, but I've certainly had call to attend meetings in French, write emails and take phone calls in German, and talk to bus drivers in Spanish in the course of my job. Yes we CAN get by without other languages, but they definitely help us to smooth the wheels and come across as more welcoming/adaptable!

Takver Tue 14-May-13 15:50:21

Actually, the point about geography is a good one. DH & his siblings all speak excellent French. He grew up on the south coast, and his school organised regular exchanges with a French school, whenever his family wanted to go on holiday they went camping in France - all very easy given that Calais is probably nearer than London (and ferry tickets probably not much more than the train to London either).

Takver Tue 14-May-13 15:53:36

Definitely don't agree that languages are useless. I speak Spanish, read French ok though too out of practice to speak, and can get the sense of Italian well enough. I'd say I use one or the other at least once a month, communicating with suppliers, reading websites etc and I often wish I'd worked harder to retain more German.

In the past when I had a job involving cross EU projects then of course languages were even more useful. (Back then I could get by in French so long as you only wanted to talk about long term unemployment and urban blight grin )

znaika Tue 14-May-13 16:01:35

Is MFL useless for a job? Maybe translators are poorly paid but there's so much more than that. French and English are diplomatic languages so useful for UN, Embassy jobs etc. The expats I know in Moscow are grads in MFL (Russian and French or Russian and German, half of them know Slavonic!)and all are easily on 6 figures I would imagine.

gabsid Tue 14-May-13 16:33:23

thesecretmusicteacher - exactly that attitude is very damaging.

Learning a language is so much more than just being able to have a little chat in another language. When I decided to learn Spanish I didn't think about any particular gain, I just liked the culture and language. After a year I spent 6 weeks in Granada doing a language course and learned to love the language and culture and wanted to learn more, so much that I made it part of me degree course.

When I go to Spain these days I always speak Spanish and get very annoyed when they answer back in English (I am not even English confused, but I carry on in Spanish until realise I can't just say 'a beer please'. Very annoying!

gabsid Tue 14-May-13 16:40:08

In my DS's junior school they advertise that they teach Spanish. DS is in Y3 and once had a HW to go on a website to learn the days of the week in Spanish, and that was it for the year I think.

On 2 occasions I and DS has heard teachers say that they can't speak Spanish and that they hate teaching MFL.

dufflefluffle Tue 14-May-13 16:42:31

As one english woman told me: it's because we are used to being the rulers (and presumeably not having to bother sinking to the level of the natives!!). nice!

Nicolaeus Tue 14-May-13 16:50:09

As PP have said, learning languages is hard. Rote learning is necessary if you want to be fluent at some point.

I learned crappy GCSE level French and German but fortunately had excellent A level teachers who forced us to learn vocab (with weekly tests and having to read out your results in front of the class - very motivating!) and most importantly, the grammar rules.

I then studied both languages at uni which added on to this base, although you had to be very disciplined to continue with the vocab and grammar learning - you had few contact hours.

Now I live in France and am fluent in French (German is more rusty but I can pick it up fairly easily in context).

During my time in France I've discovered that those people who really master the language did the strict learning of grammar etc., whereas those who arrived without any academic studies behind them can pick up words and have conversations, but they're not as fluent. There is a huge difference between conversational level and fluency.

Having said that, I do understand why languages aren't pushed more in the UK, seeing as so many foreigners speak English. Afterall, I've studied 2 languages to a high level but if I meet a Spanish, Chinese or Polish person, I'll still have to talk to them in English which I'm very blush about, but it can't be helped (or rather it can but i don't have the time or energy to learn another language, other than a few choice phrases).

gabsid Tue 14-May-13 16:54:12

Nicolaeus - or you could speak to them in French.

Portofino Tue 14-May-13 17:11:37

I am always amazed at my Belgian work colleagues language abilities. Pretty much all of them are fluent in Dutch/French/English and many also speak Spanish and Italian as an aside. Some of them speak English better than some mother tongue English speakers I can think off, in terms of correct conjugation and richness of vocabulary.

I did French, German and Russian at school. It was the reason I got my first ever full time job - working in the Port of Dover, so it never did me any harm wink.

I agree with the point about "community languages". My DC are being brought up bilingual in English (my language) and Arabic (DH's). In my view Arabic is probably going to be more useful to them than French but isn't valued in an educational context because it is learned outside of school.

DH being forrin speaks 4 languages!

learnt not learned

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 17:28:24

what attitude gabsid? When you go to Spain, they answer you in English. I would go so far to say that it is wasting a waiter's time to address them in the local language unless you are fluent.

Your Spanish is clearly personally fulfilling. I feel the same way about playing the violin.I've even turned it into a second job. What I don't do is wish that all children were systematically taught the violin and insist that that be part of our education system.

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 17:30:14

"Having said that, I do understand why languages aren't pushed more in the UK, seeing as so many foreigners speak English. Afterall, I've studied 2 languages to a high level but if I meet a Spanish, Chinese or Polish person, I'll still have to talk to them in English which I'm very blush about, but it can't be helped"

If she addressed them in French, they would answer in English.

I have devoted several years of my life to the acuisition of foreign language skills. It's made me a more sensitive and intellectual communicator but it's not a "hard" skill - it's an accomplishment, just like playing the violin is.

ChunkyPickle Tue 14-May-13 17:33:59

I think that the grammar point is a good one, certainly when it comes to formal teaching..

Having lived in a lot of other countries I speak a smattering of a few languages - none fluently though - I've found that for living in a country, once you get beyond doing your shopping, directions, restaurants, and a few other general bits and pieces you don't really need much more, and people are much more likely to want to practise their English on you anyway!

On the other hand, people who grow up speaking another language tend to want to learn English because it will help them progress in their work - English has been the working language of all my jobs, primarily because it was the only common language between a group of nationalities. My language skills would have had to be similarly advanced if it hadn't

Xenia Tue 14-May-13 17:34:44

I thin it is a hard skill which is why English children don't want to do it. They want to do the easy GCSEs.

ChunkyPickle Tue 14-May-13 17:41:19

I've thought of one thing that's always struck me - English speakers are very tolerant of accents - you can speak English in a very strong accent before it becomes unintelligible. This has not been my experience in other languages where people even seem to have trouble understanding other regional accents (or perhaps I've just been unlucky?) eg. Central American Spanish vs. Southern European Spanish accents.

I don't know if that has any relevance in all this, but I almost feel like it could - perhaps people give up too easily when others have trouble understanding them

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