Post-Brexit UK realizes the importance of foreign languages to compete

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Different languages bring different visions of life and perspectives as globalization marches on

There is a sense of urgency in education that few realize. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

The truth is, every parent dreams of the ideal education for their child. But not many people focus on the foundation of that education – which is the language in which the child learns. They use the language to communicate but ignore the importance of the language itself in developing the child’s mind. And even fewer people understand the value of learning more than one language. Contemporary psycholinguist, Frank Smith, said, “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”   Experts also say that being bilingual makes a person smarter as the ability to think and understand the nuances of words in different situations improves cognitive skills unrelated to language. Learning more languages is also said to protective the elderly from dementia.

The diversity of communities across the world has naturally led to a large number of actively used languages. According to the 2017 Ethnologue language database, there are 7,097 recognized living languages in the world. The Asian continent has the largest number of languages – 32% of all languages, Africa has 30%, the Pacific has 18.5%, America has 15% and Europe has 4%. Papua New Guinea has twice as many languages as Europe – 840 languages, with 12 having few speakers. Across the world, some languages are more widely spoken than others. Mandarin is the world’s most spoken language, with Spanish coming second, then English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian. Japanese and W. Panjabi, in that order.

In the US, known as the Melting Pot of diverse nationalities, the diversity of languages is very limited in proportion. Although the country has no official language, English is the most commonly used primary language of about two-thirds of the country. Spanish is the next common language used by about 10% of the population. Less than 1% use Chinese, French/French Creole and Tagalog. However, currently, with globalization and closer connections with communities around the world, more people are interested in learning other languages. Many are drawn to learn Hebrew as well.

Recent figures indicate that there are 142 million registered students in the US and in the European Union (EU). 47.5% of these students are learning at least one foreign language. The interest and inclination to be multilingual appears prominent in the EU, where over 95% of students are registered in one or more foreign languages. English is recorded as the most commonly taught foreign language, with 1.5 billion students across the world currently studying the language. By 2028, there will be an estimated 2 billion people globally, studying English as a foreign language.

In the UK, however, there are concerns about young people’s lack of enthusiasm to learn foreign languages. The British Council recently warned that if the UK is to remain globally competitive following Brexit, young people need to essentially learn other languages. A Press Association study shows that applications for degree courses linked to European languages fell by 25% in the past five years, along with a 20% decline in applications for non-European languages. Schools Adviser at the British Council, Vicky Gough, said, “As the UK comes to reposition itself on the world stage, language skills matter now more than ever. And with the country already facing a languages shortfall, we must do everything we can to encourage more people to acquire these vital skills.”

From another perspective, it has been found that multilingualism helps boost new science knowledge. American physicist and applied linguist, Jay Lemke has shown that scientists in the course of their work, rely on graphs, tables, gestures and mathematical equations, apart from spoken or written language. Therefore, science out of all areas of study, is eminently suited for multilingualism. Lemke’s and other research show that using several languages to teach science, will greatly help accelerate concept development, which is a core objective of science.

As American journalist, Flora Lewis, said, “Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.”

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