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Europe is leaving US behind on language learning – Pew

Only a fraction of children in the US learn a foreign language at school compared to the vast majority of Europeans, a Pew report shows.

Not having a second language would be considered "a major disadvantage" in continental Europe. Photo: Pixabay

The predominance of English as the world’s lingua franca may play a role in low foreign language learning in anglophone countries

Comparing data from Eurostat and the American Councils of International Education, Pew found that a median of 92% of children across Europe study a foreign language in their education, compared to only 20% across the US.

In 24 European countries, the foreign language learning rate is at least 80% – while Luxemburg, Malta and Liechtenstein report 100%.

By comparison, the top US state for language learning rates is New Jersey at just 51%, followed by the District of Columbia at 47 and Wisconsin at 36.

“Familiarity with the language in their country of choice can make studying abroad easier”

This is in part the result of different education policies. While PEW reports only 10 US states and the District of Columbia have foreign language graduation requirements for high school students, foreign language learning is compulsory in the vast majority of European countries, according to the Eurydice 2017 report.

The trend picked up by the report is towards lowering the starting age, with most students starting to learn a second language between the ages of six and nine.

English is the most popular second language in Europe – 97% of lower secondary students learn it at school, according to Eurydice data. French, German and Spanish follow.

The predominance of English as the world’s lingua franca may also play a role in low foreign language learning in anglophone countries – according to a 2016 Pew report, only 36% of Americans consider a foreign language an extremely or very important skill to succeed in today’s economy.

This perception, coupled with low foreign language learning rates, could also impact on outward student mobility in higher education.

Rajika Bhandari, senior advisor of research and strategy at IIE, said that while it is important to note that a complex array of factors drive a student’s decision to study abroad (time and cost, for example), language proficiency or the desire to gain new skills can be a motivating factor for some.

“Familiarity with the language in their country of choice can make the decision easier for students considering whether to go abroad,” Bandhari told The PIE.

“Not having a second language would be considered a major disadvantage for a child”

 “Open Doors data shows a correlation between the countries that US students are choosing as their study abroad destination and trends in foreign language learning at the tertiary level.”

After the UK, Italy, Spain, France and Germany were the most popular study abroad destinations for US students, matching foreign language enrolment trends highlighted in a recent Modern Language Association report, Bandhari explained.

She added that while the growing offer of English-taught degrees in non-anglophone countries may have encouraged more US students to study abroad, it could also serve as a disincentive for English native speakers to acquire a foreign language at home.

The perception across Europe is different. Steve Lewis, director of the European School Bergen in the Netherlands, told The PIE that not learning a foreign language would be considered unacceptable.

“Not having a second language would be considered, in continental Europe, as being a major disadvantage for a child,” he said.

In the European school systems this is compulsory from the age of five, he said.

While bilingualism and multilingualism are common in certain European countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, most obviously), second language learning is embedded in all countries, Lewis explained.

It’s not just English – increasingly the language not only of business, but also higher education – but also French, German, Spanish.

Beyond the cultural reasons, this is supported by clear policies both at EU and national level.

The EU Commission has for example been pushing for a ‘mother tongue plus two’ goal, ensuring school leavers are proficient in two foreign languages. And the creation of the CEFR, Lewis added, has given language learning a major support.

“The picture across the UK is concerning”

Lewis also warned against the idea that, as masters of the world’s lingua franca, English native speakers are exempt from learning another language. Beyond the obvious advantage for integration and intercultural communication, speaking a foreign language is crucial for international trade as well.

The Pew study didn’t include data from the UK – but it’s fair to say foreign languages are not as popular there as they are on the continent.

“The picture across the UK is concerning,” Mark Herbert, director of schools and skills at the British Council, told The PIE News.

 “In England last year only 47% of pupils took a modern language subject at GCSE, the standard national examination for 15 and 16-year-olds, while in Wales the number of pupils studying a foreign language at GCSE has almost halved since 2002.”

He added that while some positive steps have been taken, state schools still lag behind independent schools in the number of students taking a foreign language at upper secondary level.

“In such an internationally competitive environment, it’s vital we sustain real progress and encourage more of our young people to realise the benefits of learning a language,” he said.

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