Time to change the way we teach foreign languages

I might be something of a communications geek, but I adore the challenges and excitement of communication. Humankind is, as far as we know, the species with the most highly developed sense of communication and language and so, to me, communication is part of the very essence of being human.

I am interested in the whole range of communications from technological developments such as blogs and Twitter, to corporate communications and foreign languages.

Learning a foreign language enables us to communicate with fellow human beings in other countries and from other backgrounds and cultures. The teaching of foreign languages has always interested me, though not being a teacher, I can only speak from the perspective of a learner.

The world has changed a great deal since I studied German. Back then it was not uncommon to pick up scientific journals – I also studied chemistry – in which research papers were published in German, French or Russian, with only a brief English abstract, if you were lucky. I remember once ‘deciphering’ a pharmaceutical paper that was published in Danish. Today, almost all such papers would be published in English.

Although, I no longer use my German in the working environment, I still value its use when I visit Germany as I gain so much more, I believe, than if I relied on the English spoken by the locals. And as I socialise with a number of Germans, it is so useful to be able to speak German. We often have great debates about the finer nuances between the two languages. I remember a recent discussion in German about the difference between ‘naughty’ and ‘nasty’ in English. My German friend was intrigued by the difference between ‘You naughty girl’ said to someone of six years of age and someone of 42!
Foreign language teaching
What has always concerned me about foreign language teaching in the UK is the way it has typically focused on one or two languages. In countries which do not have English as a mother tongue, it goes without saying that the first foreign language you teach should be English, as the lingua franca for most of the world’s business community.

For the UK, however, the decision is much more difficult. For historical, cultural and geographical reasons, the first choice of foreign language here has been French, German or Spanish, with Russian and Mandarin coming in a distant second place.

But in reality the needs of our population is not to learn a language in great detail. I know plenty about the use of the extended attribute in scientific German. What I believe would be better for students is to learn half a dozen languages more superficially.

Not only will this increase the chance that, when visiting a foreign country, you have some basic grasp of the local language but, from a commercial point of view, future business people will be able to at least understand some of the deliberations taking place around them.

I am convinced that the general reliance on English has not stood the UK economy in good stead when it comes to exporting to overseas markets.

Obviously, there will always be a need for some students to study one or two languages in depth, in order that they can become translators or journalist or whatever, but what I’d like to see is that the first two years of language teaching, as a minimum, focuses on basic salutations in languages including Welsh, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian and Spanish.

In fact, it doesn’t really matter which languages they are, the key is that we empower people to have a better understanding of their fellow human beings, wherever on the globe they are.