We all know that speaking more than one language is a plus in anyone’s life, for multiple reasons, right? And that whilst the responsibility for anything we learn should probably start in the home, the importance of language learning means that schools should play a hugely important role in encouraging students to learn an additional language to their own tongue. Correct? Well...
Starting in Europe
In schools across most of Europe, learning additional languages is not only encouraged, but is compulsory, and has been since 1995, when the European Commission’s White Paper "Teaching and learning – Towards the learning society", stated that "upon completing initial training, everyone should be proficient in two Community foreign languages". In England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Croatia, and Spain, students are expected to study at least one foreign language. For twenty more countries, two are required. And whilst foreign language learning is not compulsory in Scotland, schools are obligated to offer their students at least one foreign language learning option. Ireland is another language learning outlier where foreign language learning is not compulsory. However, schools throughout Ireland teach both English and Gaelic, and though neither language is considered a foreign one, numerous primary and secondary schools offer a third European language on their curriculums. So the gist we hope you’re getting from all of this is, that in Europe, learning another language in school is second nature to its students - even if we go on to being adults that aren’t all that fluent.
The UK and perhaps others The UK has had a mixed relationship with foreign language learning, because if you ask many a student of a foreign language coming out of, say, English secondary schools, they will be able to recite several things to you in that language parrot fashion, word for word, and possibly accent-perfect. But ask them a more complex question involving things like opinions or variations from their known script, and they’ll likely stare at you blankly.
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Whilst foreign language learning is encouraged and the school system tells us it is compulsory, the language taught in schools is nowhere near enough for students to go on to being fluent, unless they put the effort in themselves. The same is not true for countries teaching their students English, with those students retaining that language skill into adulthood and generally taking steps to becoming increasingly more fluent in their own time. It makes you question exactly what the difference is, because foreign language teachers in UK schools are fantastic, knowledgeable teachers. But if they work within a system that lets both them and the students down, it is a hard, uphill slog to foreign language retention for all involved.
Looking East It might be fair to assume that a vast amount of Asian countries teach English as a foreign language to their school students, but it is not the only one. Japan’s school system for example, offers English, Chinese, French, German, Korean, and Spanish, depending on the school. The Central Board of Secondary Education in India is working towards a three language system in schools, with English and Hindi as the ‘decided’ choices, but continuing with a debate over whether the third language should be popular foreign languages, such as French or German, or another Indian language.
English is taught from around eight or nine years old in Chinese schools, although younger students are often placed in special language schools or are given private tutors by parents desperate to give their children the best of opportunities. And in Hong Kong, where Cantonese is often the mother tongue, children can learn both English and Mandarin from the age of three. To attend university, students must pass both English and Chinese exams, in an effort by the Hong Kong government to promote bilingualism.
Of smaller, but equally important lands… In Vietnam since the 1980s, students have had the right to choose which foreign language they want to learn. Formerly there was a varying split of ‘popularity’ between Russian, French, English, and Chinese, but since then it appears English is the primary foreign language focus, with around 73% of student in higher education listing English as their first foreign language. Asia is comprised of around 48 countries, and though we’re fascinated by what foreign languages each of them are learning, we won’t list every single one here. But suffice to say, as well as those listed above, across Asia you have your countries similar to Taiwan, that promote foreign language learning, which is predominantly English, and those who adopt a similar approach to Indonesia, which encourages learning of local languages; there are around 300 languages native to Indonesia, after all, so they are spoilt for choice! Next time, we’ll continue our language globe-trotting in Africa and Australia, as well as America - and Russia, of course.