With the UK just a few miles away from la belle patrie in places, you’d think that second language acquisition would be a matter of course. A whole second literature, with the heritage of Proust and Baudelaire and a host of other luminaries, let alone the great wine and cuisine, right there on your doorstep, just waiting for you. Should be a no-brainer, right?

Well, according to one highly disgruntled language teacher in England writing on Cafe Babel, it’s more a matter of no brains. As much among those setting the curricula and overseeing language learning as among the students. And her feedback may be very personal, but it rings all too true.

“Until the current GCSE system changes, UK second language acquisition will remain the worst in Europe,” writes Sam Bell. “Language GCSEs can’t sink any lower.” And she cites both personal experience and statistical studies to prove her point. The British Academy has even found that “a vicious circle of monolingualism” is damaging UK economic competitiveness as well as the minds of the people, and English teenagers have been ranked the worst in Europe in foreign language skills.

“I saw one student, who had prepared her questions at home with the help of Google Translate, come into her French exam speaking absolutely terrible Portuguese. The reason? She had pressed the wrong button, and ‘translated’ her answers into Portuguese instead of French,” Sam Bell recounts. “She was told off, and allowed to retake the exam. But when you can achieve a ‘B’ at GCSE without even being able to recognise your target language, who can blame her?”

Sadly, though, UK politicians seem to be more eager to score political points and make ideologically-driven policy statements than to do anything to seriously improve the situation.

Personally, I taught myself the language skills I did acquire, outside the UK schools system entirely. I benefited immensely from the French, German and Japanese literatures I absorbed as a writer, and from even my limited linguistic competence out on the streets as well. I’m sure others would get just as much from languages if only they were able. But the current UK government seems almost as quietly hostile to foreign language learning as it is to the union with foreign countries in Europe.


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