Culture

The most crucial language isn’t taught to kids, that’s a problem for Britain’s future

By Oliver Smith 6 January 2017
Summary

French and German just aren’t the future.

Learning a foreign language is a crucial part of childhood.

Not only is a language a great life skill, it also encourages kids to understand and accept difference in the world around them – even if Friday last period French lessons aren’t exactly riveting.

Languages are also the bedrock of our business and trade, filtering up through industries and deepening our links with other cultures.

But learning French, German or Spanish – the most popular languages taught in Britain’s secondary schools today – isn’t the future, and parents already know this.

The majority of parents pick Mandarin Chinese as the most vital non-European language for young people in the UK to learn – according to a survey yesterday from the British Council – maybe not surprising as Mandarin is the most widely spoken language on earth.

What is more surprising is the tiny number of British secondary school pupils who are learning Mandarin at school.

Just 5% of state-funded secondary schools even offer Chinese as a language, and at these of the 305,873 students registered for GCSE language subjects in 2016, just 1.3% or 4,044 pupils are learning Mandarin.

Why is Mandarin being forgotten?

The reality is that our language teachers in schools are overwhelmingly biased in favour of teaching French, German and Spanish (in that order).

What’s more surprising is that Spanish is the only European language that even makes it into the top 10 most spoken languages in the world.

Most of our students are learning languages that simply aren’t very widely spoken around the world – that’s not great as we move towards an ever-more globalised world.

But there are signs of change.

Last year the then Chancellor George Osborne pledged an extra £10m of Government investment to recruit more Mandarin fluent language teachers into state secondaries.

“This investment means we can give more young people the opportunity to learn a language that will help them succeed in our increasingly global economy,” Osborne said at the time.

The announcement was heralded as a crucial boost to prioritise what is the world’s common tongue in schools, but in reality it will only help 850 more students a year to learn Mandarin by 2020.

As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, shouldn’t more of our children be learning more globally spoken languages?