- -  Day # 81  + +

EU > United Kingdom > Edinburgh

Language challenges

Edinburgh, UK (View on map)

Foreign languages do not come natural to everybody. Finland or Sweden may make it seem like that, but the United Kingdom proves the contrary. Britons can get by speaking English in most other European countries, which for most people takes away the wish to learn another language. How about learning another one?

Ranald (26):

`It`s a bit of a shame that the UK education system does not promote foreign languages`
Standard language education in the United Kingdom is very basic. It starts in secondary school, when people are around 12 years of age, and lasts for a minimum of 2 or 3 years. The most popular languages are German and French, or Latin for die-hard intellectuals. None of the languages except English is vital in getting access to university or even completing secondary school. Hardly any jobs require people to speak foreign languages anyway. The combination of no need and no incentive lead people to think that foreign languages are a nice hobby, but not much more than that.

Ranald (26, photo) thinks it`s a bit of a shame that the education system does not promote foreign languages. He likes the sound of German, but nevertheless studied French in secondary school. Whenever he travels to France, he does try to speak a bit of French. For other countries where English is not widely spoken, he will learn some basic words to get by. Ranald pities the fact that people in Britain get hardly any exposure to foreign languages. They really need to make an effort to even have access to foreign films, foreign books or even foreign television.

A restaurant would probably the best place to go to if you want to see foreign words. Or people could buy foreign newspapers. Those are available in all major cities across the United Kingdom. They must be intended for tourists, because the average Briton does not have a sufficient command of foreign languages to read them. Nigel (32) complains about that. He took French in secondary school but would not be able to read a French newspaper now. `What we learn in school does not exceed the holiday level`, he says.

Immigration does not stimulate the popularity of languages either. Immigrants in Britain either learn to speak English, or they will form their own groups and keep speaking their own language. In both cases, there is no additional motivation for Britons to learn those people`s language. Hardly anybody takes the initiative to learn Arabic or Polish, which are probably the most frequent non-Western foreign languages throughout the nation.

Language requirements
Once education is done and dealt with, foreign languages tend to become even less important. Nigel is working for the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is obviously a major Scottish company. He was not required to speak any foreign languages to join the company. `They may need some Dutch-speaking people now that they took over ABN-AMRO though. Whenever language skills are needed, it`s always for specific projects`, he explain. `Or if you want to become a translator`, he adds.

Ken (39) agrees that, on average, language skills are not top priority for companies recruiting staff. Everything else on your track record has a lot more weight. But once inside a company, speaking a foreign language may very well improve your career opportunities. `I used to work for a company who also had a branch in Japan. Since I was the only one prepared to learn Japanese, I was given the assignment. And I didn`t speak Japanese yet, I was simply ready to make the effort.`

Own initiative
Even major parts of the tourism industry do not count on people speaking more than just English. Philipa (25) works at the reception of a youth hostel. She speaks a bit of Spanish, but even without that, she would have got the job. `I learnt Spanish in Ecuador, because I could get so embarrassed when I met people from Scandinavia or Benelux countries that spoke up to seven different languages and me only English`, she says. Teaching English in schools in Ecuador allowed her to learn Spanish in return.

Philipa emphasises that British people do have to make an effort to even have access to foreign languages: `Most people visiting Britain speak English and also when we travel to foreign countries, we have a fair chance of getting served if we just speak English. Which leaves very few opportunities to practice, and makes us rather lazy in even trying. She further explains that few people go abroad to learn the language, in the same way a lot of Spanish students are coming to Britain to learn English.

With foreign TV programs being uncommon, foreign music not often broadcast on national radio and everything outside Britain having an English version of their offering ? the only way to learn a foreign language is to study it on your own: through an internet course or by attending private courses. Neither way is bound to be as successful as learning to speak a foreign language in school, unconsciously rehearsing it through random but frequent exposure and having the opportunity to use it in real life every now and then.

Mastering a foreign language is perceived as an almost impossible task or even a mystery. Those who do manage to reach fluency in a foreign language and use it to their advantage can count on admiration for their mental flexibility and persistence.

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