Bye Bye Bilingualism

In an age where multilingual speakers outnumber monolingual speakers, Louise Evans looks at why Britain seems to be falling behind.

According to the BBC, an estimated 95% of the British population are mono-lingual English speakers. This is, in part, due to government action. In 2003 it was legislated that foreign languages may become optional to pupils over 14 years of age. This, coupled with lack of promotion and even greater lack of funding for those students that do decide to expand their linguistic knowledge, means that ultimately Britain is becoming more and more monolingual; whilst Europe becomes mostly bilingual.

You might say, ‘what’s so bad about that?’ Well in a powerful country that professes unity in the EU (despite current in/out political debates), does it not seem a little bit ignorant that we expect every other country to fork out for translation services? A whopping 51.4% of secondary school students in UK have no knowledge- not even a basic ‘Bonjour’ – of a foreign language and the likelihood is that they never will. In the language race of the EU, we are failing miserably; in fact we’re still at the starting line.

The people that say ‘well most people speak English anyway don’t they?’ rattle my cage. Yes, English is one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world; but that is because so many people have actually bothered to get up and learn it. I am not, by any means, trying to say that everyone should learn a foreign language. It isn’t for everyone and that is fine. In fact the cognitive processes of learning a new language take place in the opposite side of the brain than solving mathematical equations, something that certainly in my university is seen as the most valuable and intelligent subject to master. However perhaps if some people gave it a go, they would find that learning a language would be precisely their cup of tea.

The benefits of learning a language are relevant even if you’re not necessarily going to travel to that country, although that will ultimately help.

  • You get to expand your mind, making you more intelligent than you were before, especially with problem-solving.
  • You get to communicate to people in other countries (which is gratifying.)
  • You can show off to your friends by swearing in another language.
  • You improve your listening/speaking/reading/writing skills.
  • You improve your memory.
  • You will have less chance of dementia and Alzheimer’s (according to scientific studies.)
  • Your native language will improve- that means your essays will probably become more perceptive.
  • You will gain confidence.
  • You probably will get to travel.
  • You will more employable.


Learning a foreign language may also make you a nicer person (seriously.) Learning a new language ultimately means that you will enhance your awareness towards other cultures, endorsing humility, empathy and respect for others. That brings us back to this whole ‘unity’ thing that UK supposedly perpetuates.  How can we be truly united with other countries in the EU if we’re completely happy to serve up paella (pronounced pie-ellllllla in Liverpool) and French wines, yet we can’t be bothered to learn what they actually mean?

Attending a University careers talk this week,  a member of staff from the translation department of EU Commissions attended. What he said only strengthens my case. His department were looking for more native English translators; there were enough French, German, Italian. From my point of view this deficiency is due to the aversion Brits have towards other languages. In some European countries like Spain and France, mastering just one foreign language would be a doddle. In fact, I have a friend from Spain who is fluent in five foreign languages, and is learning more, without so much as batting an eyelid. That is because it is so normal, so blasé, to be able to communicate in a language other than one’s native tongue, EVERYWHERE BUT HERE.

So I really do think that the benefits, eating too much cheese and drinking too much wine outweigh the negatives of perhaps having to pay for a few language courses here and there.



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