Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Why Are the British So Bad at Languages?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 21st August, 2015

EU labguages sokA map of the average number of languages spoken by the inhabitants of 27 EU member states (data for Croatia was not included) depressingly confirms how largely monolingual we Brits are.At 1.6 languages each we are right near the bottom, along with the Republic of Ireland and Portugal. Only Hungary (whose own national tongue is frankly fiendish) scores worse. Given that our foreign-born population usually speaks at least two languages (many of my Asian and African friends in London know three or four) the rate for native-born Anglo Saxons must be far worse. Various lame excuses have been offered in the past, the worst being that the British are somehow congenitally “bad at languages”; Preposterous. Others say that it is because English is both Europe’s and the world’s lingua franca, so it is not necessary for us to learn others. How pathetically short-sighted. No wonder that there are never enough British applicants for jobs at the European Commission and other EU institutions, for example. No, the clear reason for our nation’s monolingualism is sheer laziness mixed with apathy, reinforced by government policy that does not stress foreign language learning. “Why bother?” is a depressingly common attitude among the people of Albion. Yet more of us are travelling abroad than ever before and indeed hundreds of thousands of Brits are choosing to work or live in other countries. Learning another language fluently opens the door not only to more meaningful contact with new people and ideas elsewhere but also to a whole range of culture and leisure activities. Which is why, when I visit school sixth forms, as I do several times a year, my loudest words of advice are: “Learn AT LEAST one other language FLUENTLY!” As Britain struggles to survive as one of the world’s leading economies while new giants continue to rise globally, we are going to need people who have that ability.

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3 Responses to “Why Are the British So Bad at Languages?”

  1. Julie Bloom said

    Brits need a bit of extra training to pass an EU concours. My son has just failed to get to the 3rd test in the AD competition, passed French bit, failed on numerical reasoning stuff – he was one of 31,400 applicants!

  2. Very interesting. How do you define separate languages? Would Luxembourgeois count? If so that means three native languages spoken within the Grand Duchy. In Belgium there are three official languages. So in both of these countries this could contribute to the higher score. The Irish Republic, in spite of over half a century devoted to giving Irish a higher status than English looks unsuccessful. I suspect nearly all its monolingual inhabitants are monolingual in English.
    The UK’s figure is dismaying. The factors you quote undoubtedly contibute, but I think another factor is that our tradition is not to teach a foreign language to small children (who lap it up) but to wait until they are self-conscious teenagers.
    The Netherlands have always been outward looking in this respect. Over much of the country they can receive foreign TV off-air and in most of the country by cable, and have used TV in French, German and English to supplement their Dutch-language channels.

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