Why can’t us British emulate foreign students?


I feel very honoured to be part of a team that help people learn another language. Authors/Publishers and language schools should feel that also. They are creating new futures, lives and opportunities. IATEFL consisted of networking and selling all sorts of English Language resources. It was amazing to see how big and friendly the ELT community was. Although everyone is competing with each other by selling books, everyone respects each other and looks after one another. It is one big happy family. Authors were talking at seminars throughout the week, about the prospects of using a certain book to gain certain skills within the English language. These authors have put so much effort into helping others, they see and feel what the prospected English speaker needs to learn and how English speaking/listening/reading and writing, can be achieved. Teachers in language schools, have the patience and drive to help all levels of English learners, some whom might not pick up the basic language quickly, but they are in the school for a reason. And these Teachers see that these people have spent time, and money to gain extra knowledge, and a new way of looking at life. The English language gives them an extra stepping stone to achieving their dreams.

These people at IATEFL had aspirations, future goals and it was a delight to see how important books were for the future of these dedicated professionals. Being in digital marketing, I know how important it is to keep up with the digital times. The internet is and always will be important for learners of English. It gives them the opportunities to buy online, to search for schools online and to be part of a community socially. English books online are presumably the future in certain countries. Language schools that can afford to supply iPads or tablets will have an advantage but not every country or school can afford this. Books, material that you can touch, feel and own, are and always will be the future. We can talk about online material until we are blue in the face, but thinking back to when I was at school, material that was in front of you, that you could write on, practice, was the best way to learn. Each and every one of us could not wait for the TV to be rolled into the classroom, ready to watch something educational or perhaps not. Most days, we had enough of listening to teachers. Little did we know, that these teachers were drilling information into our brain without us even knowing.

It became apparent that the English, and the British educational system is way behind in terms of second or third language learning. The attitude of ‘well, we don’t need to learn another language, we have the main language’ is just not acceptable in my eyes. Why shouldn’t we learn another language? Why isn’t it used in primary schools where children soak information up like a sponge?

I have often been told by foreigners that the English people are lazy when it comes to learning another language. It isn’t the children’s fault. They want to learn, they need to learn, but for some reason, the British government don’t think we need to add languages as a primary subject. Well forgive me if I’m wrong, but myself and this is an estimated guess, 90% of the people in this country will not, use trigonometry or pie in their lifetime. I’m not singling out maths because basic maths is a must. This is just an example of how much time is used on subjects that unless you have aspirations to be a scientist, accountant or in mechanical engineering you might not ever use these for as long as you live. This goes for other subjects that we spent a lot of time learning at school, with very little outcome at the end of it. I think it’s great that we learn all parts of certain subjects that we might use to help us for the future, but to only introduce language learning as a secondary subject is why we lag behind. People who speak another language are smarter in my eyes because they have two or three words for our one word.

I have tried and failed miserably to learn another language over the years. It’s hard to want to learn when all you here is English. Your friends, family, people at work, everyone you know, can speak to you without even thinking about it. But what if we had to think about it. What if, while I was writing this blog, I picked a word and turned it into French/Spanish and started waffling on in that language. I think I would impress myself let alone other people that I have drawn in an audience who are French/Spanish speakers. If we had to learn it, we would.

A few things spring to mind when thinking about why and how the foreigners need to learn English. I used to be an agent for language schools, travelling to the Middle East to find prospected students wanting to learn English. On more than one occasion, I visited these students’ homes, some living in very bad conditions, but somehow, the parents had chosen to use their life savings on their children’s education. It was honourable to see the passion in these parents faces, wanting, needing their children to learn the English language. It was inspiring to say the least. It made me think of how important these families see the English language. It’s a must have in their eyes. They are setting their children on a path and there is no better language to learn.

Imagine if our parents had this thought process drummed into them. Saving up money for their kids’ education into language learning. No one is to blame. It’s not a natural thing. We have the most spoken language in the world. Why on earth would we need to learn another? Just imagine if the UK curriculum added a few extra hours of language learning a week, and gave students the chance to study abroad for a week or a couple of weeks instead of a week away at an adventure playground. Of course it comes down to money and taking kids out of the school for a certain period of time. But imagine if it started now and young parents wanted their kids to speak another language. Going abroad and learning a new language and culture, might open the pupil’s eyes. It might make them realise that there are other languages out there and not frown upon pupils in their school that are speaking to parents, friends in their first language.  Learning early would solve all of this. When I was learning French, I remember looking at my schedule of the week and was shocked. Two hours a week! What would you gain when you learn 1 hour every two days. Our teacher, although having a vast knowledge of the French language, weren’t even French and didn’t have the expressions, the tone and accent. We were also 15 years old, easily distracted by what else was going on in the class. We had not been taught the language early enough and we just weren’t interested.

This was over 15 years ago. So has it changed? I asked my 11 year old cousin who lived in France for 5 years and has a very good understanding of the French language. She is now back in the UK and so I asked her how much time was spent learning another language. One hour a week was her response and she said the French teacher was mispronouncing a lot of words. She knew this because she attended French schools. I may also add she has 4 hours a week learning Religious Education. And she watched the animated film The Lorax in her last RE lesson. I mean this is not right. When is it going to change? The UK is one of the brightest and cosmopolitan countries in the world and why can we not see that millions of people come to this country to learn our language. I actually feel embarrassed when someone from around the world asks me if I speak another language. I want my children to have a better understanding and at least be given the opportunity of language learning. It’s important as a human to learn as much as possible and it will do wonders for their future if they learnt from the early ages, say around 5 years old. British people who have married foreign nationals have an advantage. Being around speakers of another language, you pick up words, body language and become automatically interested. My wife is a foreign national and we have a daughter coming up to two years old. My wife speaks to her in French, Arabic and English and she is beginning to understand all three. I have another huge advantage, as I will watch and learn my daughter grow up, learning three languages. It will be in my best interest to learn while she learns. I will feel very odd if my daughter and her mother are communicating and I don’t understand a word.

I will now grab the bull by the horns and learn as much as I can. This is my opportunity. I just hope I have the attention span and need for this, because I have grown up in a country where learning languages isn’t on our agenda.

I hope the UK change the curriculum for every youngster’s sake. BEBC have been selling ESL/ELT books for over 40 years now, and that shows you how long students have been willing to learn English in our country and around the world. Our language schools would be even busier if it wasn’t for visa regulations and cost implications. This country and its state schools are now full up with many nationalities, many of whom can speak 2 languages. Instead of English kids turning their nose up at another language, let’s instil a mind-set that makes them jealous of these lucky people. I hope my rant reaches people who have the same opinion on our curriculum and the need for kids to learn languages early. Let us not underestimate the brain power of a child, they can cope with learning two languages. Trust me.

Nick Edwards

BEBC (Bournemouth English Book Centre)

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