Why are British people so bad at language learning?

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classicleah
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I've recently come back from a semester abroad and one of the things I learned there was that the majority of British people are horrendous at languages and language learning. Particularly when compared to our European counterparts. My international friends on average spoke about 3 to 4 languages each. Yet I and my British friends knew just English and at most A1 level French or Spanish with the acception of a forgotten GCSE.
It seems shocking to me that the British education system is so behind on such matters a fundimental area of learning. Particularly in todays increasingly globalised world. Surely if our education system is being praised as one of the best in the world it should have language learning and teaching mastered. Except it seems the majority of British young people who have learnt a second language seem to come from a certain socio-economic background or have learnt from immigrant parents. Correct me if you think I'm wrong or generalising but I believe the government need to better in providing widespread and consistent language learning to students from a young age.
I'd also like to give a brief mention to societies attitude towards language learning in general. Certainly the older generation at least seem to have the "well everybody speaks English, so why bother?" mentality.
Do does anyone have any thoughts? Does anyone disagree? Can you think of any other factors that come into play? And do you think the education system is fully to blaim or is it a wider problem of society?
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Drewski
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We don't start young enough, simple as that.

And then, which one do we go for?..
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username4889668
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I personally only started learning languages PROPERLY in secondary school. In primary, we’d learn sh*tty phrases about the weather, other countries tend to start earlier.
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RomainNeedsHelp
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Guys you are not bad at all! I've met UK students with astounding French, Spanish, German, Russian, even Scandinavian languages at university. It's just that the countries your country has given birth to have been more successful than ours and everyone speaks English, it is the official science, business and entertainment language worldwide.
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Onde
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When English people consider the English language to be the lingua franca, it suggests their French isn't very good.
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anonymoussse
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no opportunities to practice the languages bc people don't integrate much.

most people are inside their houses majority of the time and we're not very people people, compared with other cultures, so ppl don't see any benefits in learning a diff language bc they have no use for it.

learning languages is so difficult aswell so the extra effort is a bit useless.

it took me a long time to learn english and i'm very close minded about learning a 3rd language bc of how difficult i found learning english to be. i'm still learning to be fluent in it and i wanna express myself well in a language for once
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londonmyst
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That's rather a dubious generalisation about all British people.
Many British people are dual nationals and fluent in a variety of foreign languages: polish, french, german, spanish, italian, hebrew, punjabi, urdu, hindi.
Some people have no interest in learning foreign languages or little aptitude for languages.
Other people are fascinated by learning languages and choose to learn as many as they can.
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999tigger
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(Original post by classicleah)
I've recently come back from a semester abroad and one of the things I learned there was that the majority of British people are horrendous at languages and language learning. Particularly when compared to our European counterparts. My international friends on average spoke about 3 to 4 languages each. Yet I and my British friends knew just English and at most A1 level French or Spanish with the acception of a forgotten GCSE.
It seems shocking to me that the British education system is so behind on such matters a fundimental area of learning. Particularly in todays increasingly globalised world. Surely if our education system is being praised as one of the best in the world it should have language learning and teaching mastered. Except it seems the majority of British young people who have learnt a second language seem to come from a certain socio-economic background or have learnt from immigrant parents. Correct me if you think I'm wrong or generalising but I believe the government need to better in providing widespread and consistent language learning to students from a young age.
I'd also like to give a brief mention to societies attitude towards language learning in general. Certainly the older generation at least seem to have the "well everybody speaks English, so why bother?" mentality.
Do does anyone have any thoughts? Does anyone disagree? Can you think of any other factors that come into play? And do you think the education system is fully to blaim or is it a wider problem of society?
1. I dont believe our education system is praised as being one of the best in the world, at least not secondary.
2. Yes you are generalising.
3. Agree we dont have a high enough take up, but English is the dominant language of business, they built an empire and spread English usage all over the world. This was then continued by America. It is nice to have other languages. but it has been possible for a lot of people to get by with just English plus it is also an Island nation so much less mixing.
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PTMalewski
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You just don't need to.

In many countries, being able to speak English at least tolerably, is a must for many jobs.
My language is not understandable for any economically prospering nation, in the past even some scientific books could comment that there are some promising works on some matters, but they are useless because they're not written in any understandable language.

I can however hardly imagine speaking three or four languages. I know bits from Greek, Latin and Spanish, but I can't really use any of them properly, I've put lots of effort into learning English, and I'm still poor at it. Even though I can understand everything, translate philosophy into my language, and express myself pretty much on everything, I still see deficiencies, and people keep commenting on how incompetent in English I am.
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classicleah
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Although I agree I made a generalisation this generalisation was made partly on fact. It has been recognised that British people are the worst language learners in the EU by the British Council with 62% of the population only speaking English.
Going back to my earlier statement that the UK is seen as one of the worlds best education systems this too is grounded in the fact that we are consistently ranked top 10 amoung the world. Thus you would expect higher language literacy amoung British students. Yet this just isn't happening, it is widely recognised that it becomes significantly harder to learn a second language after the age of 7 so why then do language classes tend to start in the UK at 11 and then come 14 are made optional.
I understand that English is the language of business. However, it is becoming more and more evident that employers are stressing the importance of knowing at least one other language. Thus I would argue that the British education system is setting young people up to fail in a highly competitive modernised job market.
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XOR_
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Well, I think I was drunk most of my French lessons. Hope that helps.
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barnetlad
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I agree with the OP. Mixture of reasons including the prevalence of English as a business language, some xenophobia, and the end of the obligation to take a GCSE in one.
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Meganxo447
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I didn't learn a language at school until secondary and we were only allowed to learn up till we were 16. Since then I've tried to learn from apps and website but I do feel guilty that English students aren't as fluent in languages as other students in Europe and most people expect to be spoken to in English abroad. I've always tried to learn a few phrases before a holiday but would be nice to be fluent in another language.
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liaente
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You're right on most terms. This British education has changed, particularly for GCSES that I honestly see no point in making it so difficult and learning these useless concepts that the only thing students take away is to survive, learning nothing, just to memorise and apply things to exams. The majority anyway...
They claim Finland has the best education system. And of course, seeing that they barely have homework, exams or any stress - I'd definitely agree? Seeing that I have time during the holidays, I'm much more calmer and I can learn at my own time.
I don't know, Britain just needs to improve - but not in a way that suicide rates can increase.
And yes, the older generation does have that kind of mentality, they believe they're too old anyway.
Yes there are factors, but too many to type about like an inexperienced person like me, only having GCSE Sociology. Material deprivation could be one. But the government could also be to blame. Honestly I'd do an essay but I doubt anyone would read it XDDD.
(Original post by classicleah)
I've recently come back from a semester abroad and one of the things I learned there was that the majority of British people are horrendous at languages and language learning. Particularly when compared to our European counterparts. My international friends on average spoke about 3 to 4 languages each. Yet I and my British friends knew just English and at most A1 level French or Spanish with the acception of a forgotten GCSE.
It seems shocking to me that the British education system is so behind on such matters a fundimental area of learning. Particularly in todays increasingly globalised world. Surely if our education system is being praised as one of the best in the world it should have language learning and teaching mastered. Except it seems the majority of British young people who have learnt a second language seem to come from a certain socio-economic background or have learnt from immigrant parents. Correct me if you think I'm wrong or generalising but I believe the government need to better in providing widespread and consistent language learning to students from a young age.
I'd also like to give a brief mention to societies attitude towards language learning in general. Certainly the older generation at least seem to have the "well everybody speaks English, so why bother?" mentality.
Do does anyone have any thoughts? Does anyone disagree? Can you think of any other factors that come into play? And do you think the education system is fully to blaim or is it a wider problem of society?
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J Papi
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No need to - English is the king daddy

Can't say I've met many Europeans who speak more than two languages (their native language + English)

The bit about employers really valuing language skills is plain wrong.
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Oxford Mum
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(Original post by classicleah)
I've recently come back from a semester abroad and one of the things I learned there was that the majority of British people are horrendous at languages and language learning. Particularly when compared to our European counterparts. My international friends on average spoke about 3 to 4 languages each. Yet I and my British friends knew just English and at most A1 level French or Spanish with the acception of a forgotten GCSE.
It seems shocking to me that the British education system is so behind on such matters a fundimental area of learning. Particularly in todays increasingly globalised world. Surely if our education system is being praised as one of the best in the world it should have language learning and teaching mastered. Except it seems the majority of British young people who have learnt a second language seem to come from a certain socio-economic background or have learnt from immigrant parents. Correct me if you think I'm wrong or generalising but I believe the government need to better in providing widespread and consistent language learning to students from a young age.
I'd also like to give a brief mention to societies attitude towards language learning in general. Certainly the older generation at least seem to have the "well everybody speaks English, so why bother?" mentality.
Do does anyone have any thoughts? Does anyone disagree? Can you think of any other factors that come into play? And do you think the education system is fully to blaim or is it a wider problem of society?
The educational system is not to blame (however I learnt French at state primary school from age 4, and I wish this was available to others). It's just that, given the choice, more people would select maths, sciences etc than languages. I remember teaching languages, and the pupils saying they were the hardest subjects, and they would drop them asap.

At my elder son's school, there were several sets for maths and science, but only two people studying German. Having said that, German is one of the easier subjects to get in at Oxford, simply because there is less competition. If you don't study it at A level, you are out of the race.

There is even some hierarchy among languages. At some schools I have visited, they have dropped German altogether, in favour of Spanish. The study of German is declining, whilst the amount of students studying Spanish is growing.
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nulli tertius
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(Original post by Oxford Mum)
The educational system is not to blame (however I learnt French at state primary school from age 4, and I wish this was available to others). It's just that, given the choice, more people would select maths, sciences etc than languages. I remember teaching languages, and the pupils saying they were the hardest subjects, and they would drop them asap.

At my elder son's school, there were several sets for maths and science, but only two people studying German. Having said that, German is one of the easier subjects to get in at Oxford, simply because there is less competition. If you don't study it at A level, you are out of the race.

There is even some hierarchy among languages. At some schools I have visited, they have dropped German altogether, in favour of Spanish. The study of German is declining, whilst the amount of students studying Spanish is growing.
Having studied French for five years how many British GCSE students could engage in a spontaneous conversation with a 9 year old in their own language?

I appreciate the British student will be able to recite a list of irregular verbs that will be of great use if that student becomes one of the 2,500 students who go on to study French at university, but what useful skill has that 5 years of effort bestowed?
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Oxford Mum
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(Original post by nulli tertius)
Having studied French for five years how many British GCSE students could engage in a spontaneous conversation with a 9 year old in their own language?

I appreciate the British student will be able to recite a list of irregular verbs that will be of great use if that student becomes one of the 2,500 students who go on to study French at university, but what useful skill has that 5 years of effort bestowed?
I would agree with this if we were talking about the old O levels, where I had to know words (for the translation) such as dodgems and candy floss...

However the GCSE vocab is much more useful, and the vocab, although more limited (at O level we used to have to know all kinds of random words) they concern words and phrases you would need to know if you were on holiday in the target country, or going shopping in a supermarket.

If you show an aptitude, you can widen this interest by doing A level (still on limited topics and vocab, but more advanced) and then onto degree level.
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black1blade
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I always found languages the worst taught and most difficult subject at school. I was just never interested and I have no technical understanding of even english grammar since I was never really taught that at school despite being in the top 2 sets throughout school. With language subjects at school you can't really wing anything, you have to remember a large volume of vocab through rote memorisation rather than trying to understand something.
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-Eirlys-
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(Original post by classicleah)
I've recently come back from a semester abroad and one of the things I learned there was that the majority of British people are horrendous at languages and language learning. Particularly when compared to our European counterparts. My international friends on average spoke about 3 to 4 languages each. Yet I and my British friends knew just English and at most A1 level French or Spanish with the acception of a forgotten GCSE.
It seems shocking to me that the British education system is so behind on such matters a fundimental area of learning. Particularly in todays increasingly globalised world. Surely if our education system is being praised as one of the best in the world it should have language learning and teaching mastered. Except it seems the majority of British young people who have learnt a second language seem to come from a certain socio-economic background or have learnt from immigrant parents. Correct me if you think I'm wrong or generalising but I believe the government need to better in providing widespread and consistent language learning to students from a young age.
I'd also like to give a brief mention to societies attitude towards language learning in general. Certainly the older generation at least seem to have the "well everybody speaks English, so why bother?" mentality.
Do does anyone have any thoughts? Does anyone disagree? Can you think of any other factors that come into play? And do you think the education system is fully to blaim or is it a wider problem of society?
I would assume it's because English is a language spoken by so many all around the world. In most touristy places, you'll find someone who speaks English. We start learning French or German in high school, so as Drewski said, we don't start at a young age and the lessons aren't great and aren't intensive enough. Even then, I started learning Welsh at a young age and whilst I know basic terms, it hasn't stuck because it wasn't used all the time and I'm still trying to learn it. I've also heard that English is 'backwards' or unique compared to the rest of the languages spoken, making it easier for other people to learn, but harder for English speakers to grasp other languages. I think many English speakers would like to be fluent in more than one language but it just doesn't happen. There are people out there who do know more than one language though or are trying to teach themselves a language so you can't assume every English speaker from Britain is choosing to be ignorant.
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