“Learn a new language and get a new soul.” The words of this Czech proverb strike a chord deep within me. To really know another language is to know another culture, to connect with another way of life, to see another perspective of the world. It moves you to new places, and it changes you.
The benefits of learning another language are multiple and diverse. On a purely individual level, knowing another language lets you explore different countries and new cultures unimpeded by communication barriers.
Expert linguists estimate that over 7,000 languages are spoken around the world. 4.2 million in the UK have a mother tongue that is not English, while Chinese and Spanish outrun our designated ‘lingua franca’ as the most spoken languages in the world.
If you only know English, the level of interaction you will have with people in non-English speaking countries is predetermined, and the depth of knowledge you will gain is far lower; a translated menu and hand gestures can only offer a superficial understanding of what life in a certain place is really like. Similarly, a knowledge of linguistic patterns and nuances is essential in determining trade deals, discussing international policy and conducting field research.
Languages are a vital aspect of communication. For those who lazily refer to the advancement of technology in the form of automated translation devices and coding-reliant systems as rationale for limiting the teaching of languages, forget that social and cultural nuances are dictated by language. Face-to-face contact drives the creation, development and sharing of ideas. So much can be misunderstood or left unsaid when we are reliant on the intermediaries of machinery.
Languages are at the core of all business sectors, as shown in a report by the University of Cambridge which outlined how business is lost to UK companies through lack of language skills. Research suggested the UK is under-represented internationally, and graduates who offer only English are at a competitive disadvantage to their multilingual peers.
The study and comprehension of foreign languages does not only enrich multicultural understanding, travel prospects and career opportunities,
but it also has proven health benefits. The positive effect of multilingualism on cerebral development has been long attested to. Linguistic awareness leads to better skills in communication, speaking, writing and problem solving.
In a study by the University of Chicago, researchers also found that thinking in a foreign tongue encourages people to rely on systematic processes, thereby reducing decision biases. Another recent article published in the ‘Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease’ found individuals who speak four or more languages were less likely to suffer from dementia than those speaking only one language. Those who speak more than one language are more likely to develop dementia five years later than those who speak only one.
So why are we Brits so reluctant to learn languages?
The British Council’s Languages for the Future 2017 revealed some shocking, if not necessarily surprising, indicators of the lack of language proficiency in the UK today. Most notably, nearly 70% of 18-34 year olds said they were unable
to hold a conversation in any other language. If monolingualism truly is the “ illiteracy of the 21st century”, these statistics are something that should cause serious concern.
Multiple organisations led by the British Academy, are calling for a national strategy for languages to combat the lack of language skills in the UK and what this entails for diplomacy, the economy and national security.
The standard framework for language subjects in schools is changing. But while the number of GCSE entries for French and German have indeed declined by 30% over the past 5 years, other languages, such as Arabic and Chinese, have seen an increase.
The relative importance of languages to the UK was gauged by the British Council according to many market and non-market factors including tourism, language interest and trade priorities. The demand for German is highest when considering top export markets, Arabic for diplomacy, Turkish to balance very low levels of English, French for economy and Chinese for the prevalence of languages on the Internet.
By balancing all these factors and more, they concluded Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German were the top five ‘most important languages’ needed in the UK, followed by Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese and Russian. Other languages that also scored highly include Polish, Malay, Turkish, Hindi and other Indian languages.
For anyone interested in learning a new language, whether it be for the purposes of travel, intercultural exchange, career development or pure interest, there are many independent language schools that specialise in a holistic approach to language learning.
One such school is the SOAS Institute, which is the leading Higher Education institution in Europe specialising in the study of Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East. The Language Centre offers short courses, certificates and diplomas over a wide range of languages; major international ones such as Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Korean as well as the languages of Asia and Africa, all under the ethos that “languages set you free.”
Whether you prefer one-on-one tuition, group lessons, intensive courses or evening classes, there is a breadth of possibilities for language learning in London.