14 April 2012 - 12:42 pm

The curse of the monoglot

Last month I read about the phenomenon of the hyperpolyglot, which basically describes people who, not content with learning one foreign language, learn several. Apart from being impressed by their linguistic prowess and determination, hearing about these polyglots made me feel a bit inadequate with my knowledge of just three languages, but what about those among us who only speak one language? Well, for those of us who speak English and whose only attempt at foreign language learning has entailed American English, you’ll be glad to know that you now have a label too: You fall under the curse of the monoglot.

This particular curse is surprisingly widespread, and shows no sign of letting up, especially as according to Ofsted, the number of pupils leaving secondary school without having learnt a modern foreign language is rising year on year, due for the most part to languages being made non-statutory in 2004. Since that time, the proportion of students taking language GCSEs has fallen from 61% in 2005 to 44% in 2010, with reports that the decline is steadily deteriorating slowly further.

Now it’s not all doom and gloom. For languages graduates like me, this could actually be quite good news, as it doesn’t take a genius to work out that in an increasingly global marketplace, the demand for those with a foreign language knowledge should be pretty high, and as the number of such students is in decline, demand may start to outweigh supply, meaning that a second language could well clinch me a graduate job come September. However, from a less selfish and more personal perspective, the news of a decline in language learning is never good news; the opportunities offered to me as part of my language learning have been many and varied, and have almost definitely played a massive role in shaping me into the person I am today.

Without the terrible Spanish exchange experience to Mallorca I wouldn’t be aware of my love of paella and my hate of cherry beer, and if I hadn’t spent time undertaking a British Council funded research project at the age of 18, I might not have developed such a passion for research. Coming back from my time as an Erasmus student abroad, I felt a world away from students on my linguistics course who were in the year below me- whilst they had spent the last year drinking the Sheffield pub scene dry, I had been living and teaching in Paris, then living and working full time with French natives in sunny Montpellier. The gap in life and cultural experience became increasingly apparent when it came to completing group work on linguistic minorities- somehow living abroad and speaking another language had made me more able to put myself in someone else’s shoes.

Now I’m sure lots of you are reading this and thinking, ‘well, I don’t study languages, but I know all of those things,’ and of course this could well be true. Whilst I love learning languages, I don’t believe that it makes me superior to anybody else, I just like to make sure people are aware of the potential personal benefits that learning a foreign language might give you. I think the one thing learning and speaking a foreign language definitely ensures is that you aren’t afraid to make a fool of yourself or to try new things- whenever I go to a new country, I always make an effort to learn just a few phrases, so that the locals will know that whilst my accent might suck and my intonation may be all wrong, I’m willing to try and make an effort to be polite.

So, what exactly is the government planning on doing to try and sort out this language learning mess? A review of the curriculum is currently underway in England, and a new league table measure, known as the English Baccalaureate, is being developed which will be given to pupils who get good GCSEs in five key subjects including a language. So it seems that the general consensus points towards language learning going back to being almost compulsory at secondary level, but is this really the answer?

Since 2002, the government has been working with primary schools to ensure that all junior pupils would be entitled to learn a language, and by making secondary level language learning compulsory, there is a risk that resources will be spread too thinly. Some organisations, such as CILT, the national training organisation for languages, have warned that primary language teaching is still “at an early and fragile stage of its development”. Also, from a personal perspective, as somebody who learnt languages when they were still compulsory to GCSE level, I remember being in a class with lots of students who just were not interested, but had been forced to be there. From a pupil and teacher perspective, this can’t lead to a positive learning environment, which surely is required in order to make sure that pupils progress onto further language learning?

This is clearly a complex argument, but if we want to move from being a nation held under the curse of the monoglot, to perhaps having a few more hyperpolyglots and loads more polyglots, something has to change. The best part is that if and when this change does happen, more people will be getting the great benefits that come along with learning a foreign language.

Thanks to Peter Barwick for the image.

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    India Woof

    Hi! Having graduated from my BA in French and Linguistics at Sheffield, I am now continuing to do an MA in French studies. I'm very excited to be an enterprise intern for a second year and can't wait to get stuck into organising projects. I am also really looking forward to hearing all the wonderful new ideas that students bring into the zone....