Should learning a second language be made compulsory in England?

Featured image courtesy of Taylor B. via Flickr.

In an ever changing world, language is one of the few things that connects us all. News, trade and intercontinental relations all depend on clear communication. Without multilingual people there would be little contact between nations. Yet, language is something we often take for granted and it is only when we do not understand those around us that we feel that loss.

In England, language learning is mandatory between the ages of 7 and 14, however, lessons tend to be inconsistent around the country. For example, when I was in primary school (years three to six) I had French and Spanish lessons. However, these lessons were sparing in number and erratic; we changed between French and Spanish every term. This approach made it almost impossible to learn the basics of either modern foreign language. Studies have identified that retaining the language skills learnt in primary school is rare, with year 7 pupils often starting lessons again from scratch. A further hurdle in language learning is encouraging students to take them at A Level and beyond.

In comparison, European children start to learn a second language between the ages of six and nine years old. Therefore, by the time they are  teenagers, they are able to speak two languages fluently. Only around 38% of Brits can speak a foreign language fluently compared to 54% in Europe. This disadvantages people from England if they want to work or move abroad because it limits their employability if many of their peers can speak multiple languages and they cannot.

A big issue with not learning a second language in school is a lack of funding and modern foreign language teachers. If not enough students study a language in higher education, a vicious cycle will arise where students have no access to these subjects and, thus, cannot study them. In turn, the number of language teachers declines and so does funding in schools. In the end, only a few privileged students will have access to foreign language learning, either through private tutors, resource-rich private schools or access to foreign travel.

One of the main reasons that learning a second language is not deemed necessary in England is due to social influences such as the domination of American culture. American culture is very prominent in news, social media and films. This does make it considerably easier to learn English compared to many other languages as it is all around us. As a result, around 20% of the world population speaks English, which makes learning  a second language seem pointless to some.

The lasting impacts of the British Empire also have a significant influence. As the British invaded and settled for decades in countries across the world, they also imposed their language on the native people. This continues to the present day. Across the world, every country with the exception of Finland has English as its first or second official language. So why bother learning a second language?

Contrary to these views, there are an extensive number of reasons why learning a second language is beneficial. The top two reasons being the health benefits and an employability advantage. A study by the University of Granada, Spain, found that bilingual children developed a better working memory than their monolingual peers. Consequently, this benefitted them academically as their English comprehension and mental-maths skills were far stronger.

As a result, bilingual people also delay the onset of memory detrimental diseases such as Dementia and Alzheimer's. The science behind this is that having a better working memory allows for more neural pathways to be created in the brain. Thus, monolingual people are usually diagnosed with Dementia or Alzheimer's four years before their bilingual counterparts.

Knowing a second language can also increase your employability. For most jobs this is not necessary but can make you stand out as a candidate. Nowadays, many employers are not just interested in academic achievements but also life experiences and skills. Being bilingual proves capability and proficient communication skills. Employers know that, even if the job does not require a second language, a good linguist will have an admirable intercultural awareness, confidence and be good at understanding others; these skills are all transferable no matter the work.

Another huge advantage is that pay is usually higher for bilingual employees. A study in 2018 showed that German, Arabic and French were the highest paying languages with the most job opportunities across England.

A further benefit is the opportunities that may arise to work abroad. Some sectors such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) have 30% more job opportunities abroad. A second language in this context will increase employability and also help the candidate integrate if they do choose to work away from the UK.

There are many benefits to learning a second language, so it is questionable why they are not compulsory in the English school system. The importance of languages is heavily disregarded by some of us Brits, which is not only ignorant but extremely disadvantageous. Thankfully, many young people are taking languages as a subject in higher education but this trend must continue if we want languages to continue being mainstream and not a niche subject.