Universally Speaking: Learning Languages in Britain

What exactly is it about foreign languages that upsets Britons so much? Take yourself to another European country and you’ll find that the inability to string a sentence together in another language is more an embarrassment than anything else. Unfortunately, too often in Britain demonstrating your language skills is misinterpreted as boastful, or worse, showing off.

Ironically, during my year abroad in France I was asked constantly what my third language was, and on having to admit that I only spoke French and English, I was then asked why I had ‘only’ taken on one foreign language. This question was almost always accompanied by a confused and slightly disappointed look, as if to suggest I’d given up somewhere. It was usually followed up by the final question: “So, you really don’t speak anything else?”

Back home most people’s interest in your language skills never lasts long, and second language acquisition is often treated as a hobby or a trivial aspect of someone’s life. In fact, learning another language is hugely beneficial to an individual for the way it develops your brain and the pleasure it brings to be able to communicate with people. It is also impossible to underestimate just how useful a second language is on the job market. This is especially relevant now, when students and graduates are willing to spend their time on pretty much anything if it will make them and their CV to stand out from the crowd.

Although British employers are very interested in language graduates, it is irritating that the skill itself is only valued in the UK based on its employability factor. It is rarely seen as a worthwhile ability all by itself, and often the hard work done by people who have acquired another language later in life or through education goes unappreciated.

You could argue that the biggest issue in the UK is a lack of interest in languages, as well as the constant need to prove the ‘value’ of learning them. Ultimately, how do you get British children interested in learning a foreign language when the language they already know is so widely spoken? While it is still incredibly valuable and sensible to take on a foreign language with the express intent of it helping your career prospects, I would argue that it is the learning of a language itself which has value, not the job it will get you in the future. Most people who speak foreign languages will argue that they do so because they enjoy it, because they love being able to communicate in other languages, and not just because it has helped their career.

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