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Which foreign languages should we be teaching?

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Which foreign languages should we be teaching?

According to the most recent Eurobarometer survey (2005, published February 2006) English is spoken by 51% of European citizens as their Mother Tongue (MT) or first Foreign Language (FL). The Eurobarometer survey covered the EU countries plus Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Turkey.

The figures for the main languages are:

English: 51% (MT 13%, FL 38%)

German: 32% (MT 18%, FL 14%)

French: 25% (MT 12%, FL 13%)

Italian: 16% (MT 13%, FL 3%)

Spanish: 15% (MT 9%, FL 6%)

So German speakers are the dominant MT group, followed by English and Italian speakers. Geographical spread is, of course, a key issue. Italian as a MT or FL is confined to a much narrower space than German. English is spoken almost everywhere to a lesser or greater degree in the countries surveyed.

When asked which two FLs UK children should learn at school, UK citizens answered:

French: 77%

German: 34%

Spanish 39%

German came higher in most other European countries and French and Spanish came lower. Apart from the UK, only Ireland (64%) and Luxembourg (83%) considered French to be the first FL that children should learn. Overall, 77% of European citizens considered that children should learn English as their first FL.



Looking at the global picture, however, we should probably be teaching Chinese and Japanese. Blogs written in Japanese on the Web now outnumber those written in English, and Chinese is catching up fast.


Sifry's Alerts

State of the Blogosphere, April 2006


Or should we be teaching Arabic?

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Isn't it the case that French gets taught so much only because traditionally people have studied French at University and therefore end up teaching it?

Not a very sound criterion.

If the aim of MFL teaching is to prepare the next generation for business then Chinese and Japanese are probably the obvious choices... which begs the question what is the point of teaching MFL in schools?

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Chinese, alongside Arabic and Farsi, is also the American choice of future school foreign language on "national security" grounds, according to a recent American Educational Research Association article entitled "Foreign Language Instruction: Implementing the Best Teaching Methods" at


It makes interesting reading as it illustrates how much we and the States have in common when it comes to the teaching of MFL in schools.

As for the point of teaching MFL in schools, one could argue that most countries will sell things to us in English but expect us to speak their language when they purchase our goods. I'm glad to see that German is the language most in demand after English in continental Europe. It's often forgotten that within Europe German has more native speakers than English does, and that Germany remains an economy to be reckoned with, despite recent setbacks. French and German still make a good choice of introductory MFL for English speakers to study because English is a Teutonic language with a lot of French thrown in. That makes both easier to learn as well as shedding light on the development of our own language. Having learnt such languages in the "shallow end" of MFL immersion, it will be easier afterwards to proceed to the "deep end" and begin languages such as Chinese which have little in common with English. MFL isn't just about learning a particular language nowadays. It's about metacognition, learning how to learn languages other than our own, because nobody knows for certain which language will be key in the years to come.

David Wilson


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French is taught as the first FL in the UK (and in Ireland) mainly because:

1. France is our nearest neighbour.

2. We have always taught French as the first FL.

3. There are more materials (textbooks, audio materials, videos, computer programs) around for teaching French.

As a fluent speaker of German I have always found German much more useful than French when travelling around Europe, especially as one heads towards the East. You find German widely spoken in tourism areas such as the Italian Adriatic, the Dalmatian coast and many resorts in Spain.

The Eurobarometer survey points out that most Europeans (65%) learn a FL ONLY at school. After that they are unlikely to learn a FL in any other way. In other words, get it right at school and you get it right for ever. If you have studied a FL at school, e.g. French or German, and then later in life you find that you need a completely different FL for business purposes, for tourism or whatever, you will find that it will come easier to you as you will have learned a lot from the language learning experience. This is why bilingual children brought up in community languages, say in Urdu or Panjabi alongside English, often excel in French or German at school. I used to teach in a college where there were substantial local Panjabi and Polish speaking communities. They provided us with a large number of students wishing to study European languages such as French, German or Spanish.

I don't think the aim of teaching a FL at school should be solely to prepare the next generation for business. However, most Europeans surveyed (73%) stated that better job opportunities were the main reason for learning a FL. This is because most European businesses insist on new recruits having skills in a FL for certain types of job, whereas our employers couldn't care less - apart from firms such as Amazon who are now shifting their European customer services unit from Slough, Berkshire, to Cork, Ireland, because they cannot recruit sufficient numbers of people with the appropriate language skills. Ireland is doing rather better than the UK in this respect as well as offering great financial incentives for establishing new businesses.

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