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Is English enough? UK language policy debated

last modified Nov 25, 2015 12:00 PM
Is English enough? UK language policy debated

Photo: Nigel Luckhurst

A ground-breaking policy workshop aiming to break the “vicious circle of monolingualism” in the UK was held at Cambridge University, featuring representatives of government, education and key organisations including the British Academy and the British Council.

Slides from this event can be viewed via the Language Sciences and Policy tab on this website.

The workshop, convened by Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett of Cambridge University’s Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, and chaired by Baroness Coussins, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages and President of Speak to the Future, brought together representatives from different Whitehall departments ranging from the Ministry of Defence to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as well as from the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to examine the current situation in the UK regarding languages, and discuss plans for the future.

In her introduction Baroness Coussins called for a “National Languages Recovery Programme” to embed language skills in UK education, and ensure that Britain is able to compete on the global stage.

Selected talks from the day have been made available to listen to online via SoundCloud. For more information, see https://soundcloud.com/university-of-cambridge/sets/camlangpol-2015.

The numbers of students taking a language at A level are down 28% since 1996 and over 40 UK universities have closed their language departments since 2000. Susannah Poulton of the Department of UK Trade and Investment estimated, based on research carried out by Cardiff University, that up to £48 billion is lost by the UK every year in missed contracts due to a lack of foreign language skills, in what has been described as the "vicious circle of monolingualism".

However, as Professor Ayres-Bennet pointed out, “Despite the reduction in the number of those becoming multilingual through formal education, multilingualism is very strongly present in UK schools. Department for Education statistics show that nearly one in five primary school pupils have a first language other than English. The range of languages spoken by these ‘heritage’ and minority language speakers is much broader than those traditionally taught, and could represent a significant skill-set for the UK”.

Presenters at the workshop focused not only on the educational and economic advantages of being multilingual, but also its benefits for international diplomacy and collaboration, and, especially in a military context, conflict resolution and peace-building.

Professor Ayres-Bennett said:

“I hope that this workshop, and others like it in future, will lead to greater collaboration between university researchers and language policy professionals across the UK. We want to establish new channels of communication through which policy-makers can tap into evidence-based research to develop new approaches to language teaching and a coherent strategy for promoting languages nationally”.