I am currently in the third year of a four year university course in three foreign languages – French, German and Italian. I am happy with my choice in degree but find myself constantly having to defend myself when people hear that I have chosen to dedicate four years of my life to learning three foreign languages to such a high standard. In conversations regarding this subject I am usually left feeling disillusioned as I am told that I’m wasting my time, “don’t you know everyone speaks English these days?”
Although it may well be true that English has gained the status of a “world language” today in the twenty-first century, English only takes us so far. As a first language, it’s actually only spoken by around six percent of the world’s population (16% speak Spanish as their mother tongue). Taking into account people who have learnt English as an additional language, this brings the total up to fewer than 30%. Now, I didn’t make the “sensible” decision to study mathematics at university, but even I can see that this is in fact quite a small proportion of the world’s population, much smaller than many people assume when they get off the plane and expect everyone to speak English for them, as if it’s a right we acquire when we are born into an English speaking country.
Many of the people who look down on the study of languages and view it as a “Mickey Mouse” degree are normally basing their opinion on experiences at school. The teacher taught them some phrases and they repeated them like a parrot in an exam situation, job done. Well I hate to break it you, but the French/German/Spanish/Swahili A Level you got an A in, doesn’t really count for anything. You’ve shown you can memorise some key phrases and recite them, but it’s highly unlikely that you can call yourself a “speaker” – much in the same way that I have an AS Level in Law, but I wouldn’t dream of calling myself a “lawyer.” Thankfully for the future of our country, this is something that stops at school and at university we are expected to be on point when it comes to our skills in the one, two or three foreign languages we study. As with any subject, you have to be at the top of your game at university and we don’t spend our time being shown flashcards and singing songs we don’t understand.
Studying languages isn’t just about learning vocabulary and grammar. It allows us to increase global understanding, which means we have more of an understanding of the mind and context of another culture. If you’re unable to communicate in a language, often you will find that to a certain point, the culture of the language is also inaccessible to you. People who have foreign language skills are able to bridge the gap between two cultures in situations ranging from national security and world peace, to international trade and banking.
This leads onto my next point which concerns employability. Globalisation means that if businesses want to keep up with their competitors and do business internationally, they will need multilingual employees. Employees who only speak one language can only communicate with people who also speak that one language, leaving them limited in this respect. Business is not the only sector where language graduates are valued. There are also opportunities in government, travel and tourism, publishing, engineering, communication, education, law, economics, public policy, advertising and even scientific research, to name a few. Speaking of research, it’s also been proven that knowledge of a foreign language can improve the student’s ability to use their native language more efficiently, as well as improving the learner’s ability to function and learn in many other areas. Not only are we becoming effective communicators, we’re also developing other skills.
Language abilities also allow for more feasible and enjoyable travel opportunities. It means it’s easier to stray from the beaten path, not get ripped off in tourist areas and get a more realistic view of the country and its people, the main tourist towns promoting a stereotypical and watered down version. For me personally, languages have meant I have spent this year living and studying abroad. During this year alone I have studied and taken exams in Ethnology, History, Philosophy and Literature – and all in a foreign language, alongside natives who are often in their final year of university study… doesn’t sound like a “Mickey Mouse” option to me.