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Why learn another language?
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1st Apr, 2009 | Source : Champs-Elysées

The English language has been at the forefront of globalization. English is celebrated as the language of global corporate management, the Internet, youth culture and science. At the same time, there appears to be a crisis in foreign language learning amongst native English speakers - it seems that there is no need any more to learn foreign languages if everyone now speaks English.

But such thinking is outdated. The need for English speakers to learn other languages is now greater than at any time in history, and the benefits to learners, to their employers and their countries are similarly great.

There exist over 6,000 languages in the world today. In terms of global demographics, the 'old languages' of Europe - French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian - each have over 50 million speakers and remain in the top 20 or so world languages. But there is no doubt that English is becoming more important in Europe, as elsewhere in the world. According to the Economist, over 92% of secondary-school students in the EU's non-English-speaking countries are studying English. Even the French - staunch defenders of their language and culture - had to come to terms with the fact that a book in English managed to top their best seller list. It was the latest Harry Potter novel.

It is a global phenomenon. English, quite simply, is no longer viewed as a foreign language in many countries. It has been repositioned as a basic skill, alongside computer skills and numeracy. But in the next phase of globalization, we are seeing a world of English-knowing bilinguals turning again to the learning of other languages. For example, the learning languages such as French, German, Spanish and Japanese has increased fivefold in Indian IT companies. Indians, like the rest of Asia, are learning that they need multilingual skills in order to compete globally.

This is a fast changing world, in which English monolinguals are in danger of being left behind.


Is it true that English speakers are no longer interested in learning foreign languages? In the US the number of pupils studying a foreign language has actually been rising slowly with Italian one of the fastest-growing choices. In the UK, a recent report by the Nuffield Foundation suggests that those wanting to study a language at university in addition to their subject specialism will increase over the next decade at 4-5% per year.

So language learning is certainly not out of fashion! But these figures hide a different kind of problem. More people than ever are learning languages, but fewer know their languages well. The language options available in schools are fairly restricted, fueling a huge demand for learning new languages at university, but as a consequence there is a diminishing supply of fluent speakers who have studied their language, culture and literature to an advanced level over many years. And it is these advanced and experienced linguists who are now in such short supply.


For many people, a key reward for learning other languages is an economic one. Does learning a foreign language help your job prospects?

A survey of employment destinations of graduates in the UK discovered that those with language qualifications fared better than practically any other subject specialization - even computer specialists. It seems that this employment advantage continues throughout the promotion ladder: A survey of Chief Executives in European companies showed that they had, on average, worked in four countries and most spoke at least 3 languages. In other words, in order to achieve senior management positions in larger companies, a knowledge of languages and the experience of other countries and cultures which that allows, are now essential. Working life might seem comfortable enough at lower levels in an organization, but a lack of language skills creates a glass ceiling.

Despite the increasing use of English as a global lingua franca, the reasons for learning languages are more compelling than ever - especially for the kind of study that goes beyond 'survival' language skills and provides a deeper knowledge and appreciation of other cultures and societies. Language skills have become the mark of an educated, and employable, global citizen.

The above text is an edited version of an article by language scholar David Graddol. Read the full article on the Champs-Elysées website at:



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