Language Study Continues to Decline

The world of professional translating and interpreting could see a drop in the number of native English speakers qualified to enter its midst if current trends in the study of languages in the UK continue.

The professional translation and interpreting world needs not only fluent speakers of the world’s languages, but also those with a native command of different languages. Most professional translation agencies require the translator to have  a native command of the language into which they are translating, which is not the same thing as fluency in a language. For example, if one is fluent in German, one will generally be seen as having a sufficient ability to read and understand the nuances of the language to be able to translate out of it, but of course translation (or interpretation) is a two-way process, and one needs a language to translate into. Generally, a native command of this language is necessary: even if one understands every word of a language, it is surprisingly difficult to translate perfectly into this language if it is not one’s mother tongue.


There is no reported shortage of non-native English speakers who can translate from English into their own languages, but there is growing concern about the number of native English speakers who have a sufficiently fluent command of foreign languages to be able to undertake the essential task of translating from another language into their native English.

Google ‘Decline in UK foreign language-study’ or any other related terms, and numerous links to alarmist articles about the drop in the study of languages in the UK pop up. The decline in those studying foreign languages can be seen at all levels of education. Most recently, Oxford University languages professor Katrin Kohl has written in the Guardian about the drop in those choosing to study languages at university (‘Universities must make languages relevant’, The Guardian, 16th April 2014). Similar views can be found, among many others, in the Guardian’s article of 8th October 2013, entitled ‘Modern languages: degree courses in free fall’ and that of 7th October 2013, entitled ‘European language degree courses abandoned by many UK universities’.

A significant number of those who read for a Modern Languages degree can on to become professional translators or interpreters, but with a dearth of students choosing to read a degree in languages in the first place, the professional translation sector suffers from the lack of qualified, native English translators and interpreters.

Kohl believes the current crisis in language study in higher education is due to the lack of government funding and the misguided strategies of policy makers. It is also surely due to a very British arrogance about the position of the UK on the world stage, and the English language’s status as the global tongue. As the professional translation industry’s need for native English speakers with a fluent command of other languages shows, it is not enough to smugly wallow in the knowledge that a large proportion of the world’s population speaks English as a first or second language; however widespread the command of English becomes, English native speakers who speak other languages fluently will always be in demand. It is a sad state of affairs if today’s undergraduates are too short-sighted to notice this.



Increase in studies of Chinese and Arabic by Britain’s youth

Previous blog posts by LanguageNow have considered the decline in pupils taking languages at GCSE and A Level and in students electing to read Modern Languages at university. When people refer to Modern Languages in the context of the British education system, they generally tend to mean the four most commonly offered by the national curriculum and those traditionally provided for by university departments: French, German, Italian and Spanish.

Yet in the articles which drip with doom and prophesies Britain’s slide into mono-linguistic shame, there is often a glint of positivity to be found: while the numbers reading German at university, for example, are continuing to decrease, the numbers of those electing to read for a degree (or to take an A Level) in a more ‘exotic’ language such as Russian or even Mandarin Chinese, Japanese or Arabic are steadily (if not swiftly) climbing. Even if the traditional choices of German or the Romance languages no longer pique the interest of Britain’s youngsters, the lure of mastering the intricacy of Chinese characters, playing a role in the developing Russian economy or of gleaning a more profound understanding of the simmering tension in the Middle East have begun to seduce fringes of the nation’s linguistically-minded youth.


‘The Chinese economy is the future’, booms the voice of the corporate world; master Arabic and you shall be in demand as the UK anticipates further conflict with the Arab-speaking world, comes the cry from the corridors of power. Careers fairs targeting language graduates laud the benefits of acquiring not only a foreign language but an ‘exotic’ one at that. The intelligence and security services, perhaps unsurprisingly, sniff around for graduates with a command of such tongues.

Yet does such positive discourse surrounding the acquisition of languages such as Chinese and Arabic serve to make teenagers’ judgements hazy when it comes to picking the language to which they are going to devote their studies?

The difficulty for Anglophones of languages such as Chinese and Arabic in comparison with Romance or Germanic languages is due in part to the shared Latin, Germanic and Celtic roots of English and languages such as French, Italian and German. There are many grammatical, lexical and etymological similarities between the languages (all of which descend from the Indo-European family), meaning that when embarking on a course of higher education focusing on one of these languages, one can be fairly sure of achieving a reasonable degree of fluency, provided one puts in the requisite (and indeed significant) effort.

Languages such as Chinese and Arabic share no such similarities with English; they have different alphabets, entirely different grammatical rules and syntactical structures, involve phonetics which the Anglophone will often not ever have been exposed to, and do not have a common etymology with Indo-European languages. This, coupled with the fact that most undergraduates reading for a degree in one of these languages is more likely to study the language ab initio, without the firm grounding of an A Level in the subject, means that it is much less likely that students will graduate with a fluent command of Chinese, for example.

Nonetheless, even if one’s knowledge of the language does not stretch to being able to conduct complex commercial negotiations in the foreign tongue, due to Britain’s reputation as a stubbornly and arrogantly monolingual nation, even a passable command of a notoriously difficult foreign language by an Anglophone can do much to smooth the path to diplomacy or to successful business dealings in the countries in question.



The Bilingual Brain 

A lot has been written about the idea that languages may change the brains of bilinguals, in the sense of changing they way they think and the way we see the world, an idea sparked by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of the nineteenth century. (There will be more about this conceptions of language and bilingualism in a future blog.) But more recently much research has been published about the possibility of language to change not only the kinds of thoughts we have but also the physical way in which we think, that is the theory that the physical nature of the brain of a bilingual is different to that of a monolingual person. It may seem incredible that the (mere) acquisition of a language can have a real effect on somebody’s brain, but the research supports such a theory. Scientists have often theorised that strenuous mental activity, such as that required in order to become fluent in a foreign language, can prevent degeneration of the physical tissue of the brain, thus staving off conditions such as Alzheimer’s, one of the scourges of modern society. Yet bilinguals benefit not only from increased protection against Alzheimer’s, but also from improvements in their everyday cognitive processes.

An illuminating article on this, and the idea that learning a foreign language alters the composition of the brain, was published last month in the Huffington Post. In ‘Your Mind on Language: How Bilingualism Boosts Your Brain’, the article cites numerous ways in which bilinguals theoretically process thoughts or think in a different way to those who speak only one language. For example, the article notes that bilingual people are better able to concentrate on two things at once, are able to plan better and to think more critically and have greater powers of reasoning and recal. These conclusions are not merely derived from the fact that bilingual people must necessarily possess a different or more developed set of skills which allowed them to learn languages in the first place, or resulted in their becoming bilingual; it is a consequence of the fact that the grey matter of the brain of a bilingual is denser than that of a monolingual, and that the parts of the bilingual people’s brains devoted to tasks such as memorising and reasoning are larger in comparison with their monolingual counterparts.

The Huffington Post article neatly breaks down the reception of language by the brain into layman’s terms, showing that language is received, processed, understood and produced by four different areas of the brain: The auditory cortex, Wernicke’s area, Broca’s area, and the motor cortex.

The process of language comprehension is obviously more complex in the brains of bilinguals because, as the article in the Huffington Post points out, the brain has to work to identify the sounds of the word in whichever language is it received. This strengthens the brain’s ability to make decisions, which thus makes bilingual people better at multi-tasking or conflict-managing than their monolingual counterparts. An article in the New York Times (‘Why Bilinguals Are Smarter, March 2012) which also looks at the benefits of bilingualism to the brain notes that being bilingual was long considered to have a negative impact on cognition and intellectual development. Throughout much of the last century, the conflict between the two languages in the brain of a bilingual was seen as a hindrance rather than, as scientists now believe it to be, something which actually strengthens the decision-making abilities and other cognitive processes of the bilingual.

Is the effect of change on the composition of the brain as profound in those who acquired a second foreign language in later childhood or in adulthood as compared with those were bilingual from birth? According to the Huffington Post article, the language is received in a different way by the brain depending on whether it is a language acquired in early childhood or in relatively later life. The article states that ‘if you learn a language after adolescence, a separate area develops for the second language near the area used for your native tongue.’ Those who became bilingual in adolescence or later in life do however still benefit from the protective properties of language-learning.

However, for both native speakers of two languages and ‘artificial’ bilinguals alike, the same rule applies to the retention of the second language (or even in some cases the native language). If you don’t use it, you lose it and like a muscle, language is something that has to be exercised and used in order to be fully retained. Language-learning is an ongoing task, and one that is never entirely complete.



Immerse yourself in a foreign language without leaving home

As a language learner, you’re constantly told that the best way to accumulate new vocabulary and acquire the ability to speak as if you were a native is to spend an extended period of time in the country of your target language. But what if you don’t have the ways or means to fund a long stay abroad? You might be a skint student hoping to pick up a new language while reading for your degree, or maybe you’re attempting to squeeze in the mastering of a foreign tongue around your London based 9-5. While we at LanguageNow have all spent at least a year living in the country of the languages we’ve learnt to speak, we’ve undertaken the majority of our language-learning in the UK; so here are five top tips for surrounding yourself as much as possible in a foreign language without needing to dig out your passport.

1) Watch films in the foreign language

It might sound a rather obvious hint, but you’d be surprised how beneficial consistent exposure to the sound of the foreign tongue can be to your acquisition of the language. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in the language-learning process: whether you’re a near-beginner or you’re nudging fluency, exposure to the sounds of words, different accents, dialects and registers and variations in vocabulary is invaluable to the acquisition and maintenance of foreign-language knowledge. If you’re at the ab initio stage and can barely tell where one word begins and another ends, listening to the language will quickly remedy this. If you’d almost consider yourself bilingual, watching films will anchor the language in your brain. If you’re yet to able to understand the majority of what you hear, resist the temptation to add subtitles in either your native or the target language; your brain will concentrate on reading rather than listening to the language, and you’ll lose the full benefit of being exposed to the sounds of the language.

2) Listen to the radio constantly

Again, listening to live streaming of foreign radio in order to improve one’s command of a language is no doubt a fairly obvious tip, but to maximize the language-acquisition benefits, I’d recommend constantly having the radio on. Don’t just set aside an hour or so a day to listen to it attentively (although this is very useful too!), but keep the stream of chatter on in the background while you’re tidying the house, making notes or cooking. Even though you’re not actively listening, the language will still seep into your brain. Since adopting this method, I’ve found I’ve been able to retain the level of foreign-language ability I acquired while living abroad, and have since been complimented by native speakers on my accent. A tried and tested method!

3) Devour literature

Language and literature go hand-in-hand: a country’s language is so intricately tied to its literature that reading as many works in the target language as possible mean you will develop a deeper understanding not only of the language but also of the country and culture in which that language is used, in turn enriching your appreciation of the language. If your knowledge of the foreign language is suitably advanced, this is a great way to increase your vocabulary and your understanding of grammatical structures. Don’t worry if you don’t understand every word; so long as you understand enough for the text to be enjoyable, keep reading. You can always come back up and look up any words you don’t know when you’ve finished a book or chapter, but I always find that looking up words as you go disrupts the flow of the text and makes the process a rather painstaking one.

Even if your language-learning isn’t yet at a very advanced level, you can still enjoy the language’s literature. Reading children’s literature or books aimed at young adults is a great way to improve your grasp of the language. As you near the end of Le Petit Prince or Pinocchio, you’ll not only feel that sense of satisfaction at having enjoyed a book in the original language but also the sense of having read a key part of the country’s literary canon.

4) Read the national press

A lot less daunting than a literary tome, reading magazines or newspapers in the target language is of course a very effective way for increasing your command of the language you’re trying to learn. As you’ll be reading articles of only a few paragraphs or pages without the same inricacies of plot formation and character depth as a literary text, I would advise circling words you don’t understand and looking them as you go along, as it won’t be so disruptive to your enjoyment of the text in this case. Remember to also note down the word or phrase you’ve just found in the dictionary, so that you can come back and learn the words at your leisure. Furthermore, the very act of writing down the translation of the word will help to lodge the vocabulary in your mind. When reading the national press, don’t force yourself to trawl through columns of texts about the country’s political system or the national banking crisis if that’s not what interests you. The more interested you are in the text you’re reading, the more likely you’ll be to read to the end of the article and the more pleasurable the activity will be.

5) Surf Internet forums

With the Internet, a near-infinite amount of material is now at the fingertips of language-learners. There are forums on the Internet dedicated to all kinds of discussion in all the languages of the world, and surfing these forums are a great way to develop your language skills. If you’re only just beginning to learn the language, or you’re not too confident in your abilities, you can just sit back and read the discussions taking place, immersing yourself in the colloquial dialogue of everyday life. If you’re keen to practise your written skills in an informal setting (rather than merely passively absorbing the langue), join in the discussion. This cyber contact with native speakers will mean your command of the language rapidly improves.

Rebecca Loxton