When I was living in Senegal, I was amazed by the breadth of languages spoken by virtually everyone I met. In addition to French, inherited from the colonial era, and Wolof, the most widely spoken language across the country, many of the people I met also spoke Jola, Creole, Portuguese and English. One of the young men I was working alongside claimed to speak nine languages. He was incredibly arrogant, but if I spoke nine languages I'd probably think of myself as a fairly big deal too.
Brits have a bad reputation for monoglottism. According to a survey published by the European Commission, we are the worst language learners in Europe, to which my own recent German performance can attest. During a trip to Berlin over the New Year, I found myself mirroring the stereotype of the classic Briton abroad speaking English slowly and loudly to locals to the point of self parody. Thankfully, given that the UK Government had already humiliated itself on the global stage with an incompetent German translation of its Brexit white paper, I don't think locals were expecting anything more. Every cloud, I suppose.
Despite our world having never been more globally connected and the potential to learn another language made infinitely more accessible by the development of technology, the condition of foreign language learning across Britain remains deeply concerning. Fewer and fewer young people are taking up a modern language at exam level. In Scotland, language entries at National 4 and National 5 have dropped by around a fifth since 2014. The uptake of French and German has experienced a steep decline since 2010, and there were five local authorities in Scotland in 2018 where no German National 4 or National 5 exams were recorded.
While the increase in Spanish uptake offers some vestige of comfort, it fails to compensate for the abandonment of other languages. A friend of mine teaches in a secondary school in Glasgow where only one student sat their Higher French prelim this year. According to the schools who responded to an investigation conducted by the BBC last year, the perception of languages as a difficult subject is the main reason for this slump in exam uptake.
But the weakening incentive to learn a foreign language is also exacerbated by the distinct lack of international opportunities for young people. I met a teacher last year who tried to implement digital literacy in the classroom by asking students to use the Maps app on their phone to find the quickest way from one place to another. It turned out that many of the students had never used the app before because they had no need for it. 'They don't get a chance to go anywhere they've never been,' she said. 'The furthest many of them have travelled is into the city centre.'
In an increasingly globalised world, the mindset that the difficulty of learning a foreign language doesn't match the necessity for it in young people's lives is dispiriting. This attitude in conjunction with the expectation that most people speak English anyway is a recipe for apathy. It is imperative that we encourage young people to take up modern languages and be meaningful participants in a global community.
Unfortunately however, the funding for international experiences simply isn't there. An annual report by the British Council found a decline in schools taking part in cross-border activities, such as student exchange programmes and overseas trips, because of funding issues, Brexit uncertainty and safeguarding concerns. It also found that just four in 10 schools run trips involving a stay with a host family. Just this week, MPs voted down an amendment to negotiate the UK's continued membership in the Erasmus study abroad scheme. The fact of the matter is that language learning isn't considered a high enough priority in the UK to justify the expense it demands.
The Scottish Government has made an additional £27m available to assist local authorities with the provision of modern language education since 2013, but when students are turning up in single figures for their French prelim, it's clear that more intervention is needed. My multilingual Senegalese colleague didn't learn all of the languages he spoke from his school tuition. He learned them from speaking to people, from living in a rich culture that preserved and promoted an array of languages, and by a desire to belong to a world larger than the small town into which he was born. I worry that regardless of the opportunities afforded to young people, it is our insular attitude that is letting us down.
The UK Government's latest move to scrap another international scheme is symptomatic of an increasingly detectable ethos of parochialism. I'm afraid of sounding like a Dickens novel, highlighting the problems without positing any answers, but it's important that we acknowledge that our national resistance to foreign language learning isn't just a humorous stereotype. This insularity cages young people into the misconception that not only are they not capable of learning another language, but they have no need for it.