What brain regions control our language? And how do we know this?

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Our language abilities are enabled by a co-ordinated network of brain regions that have evolved to give humans a sophisticated ability to communicate.
[bastian.]/Flickr, CC BY

David Abbott, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health

The brain is key to our existence, but there’s a long way to go before neuroscience can truly capture its staggering capacity. For now, though, our Brain Control series explores what we do know about the brain’s command of six central functions: language, mood, memory, vision, personality and motor skills – and what happens when things go wrong.

When you read something, you first need to detect the words and then to interpret them by determining context and meaning. This complex process involves many brain regions.

Detecting text usually involves the optic nerve and other nerve bundles delivering signals from the eyes to the visual cortex at the back of the brain. If you are reading in Braille, you use the sensory cortex towards the top of the brain. If you listen to someone else reading, then you use the auditory cortex not far from your ears.

A system of regions towards the back and middle of your brain help you interpret the text. These include the angular gyrus in the parietal lobe, Wernicke’s area (comprising mainly the top rear portion of the temporal lobe), insular cortex, basal ganglia and cerebellum.

The Conversation, CC BY-ND

These regions work together as a network to process words and word sequences to determine context and meaning. This enables our receptive language abilities, which means the ability to understand language. Complementary to this is expressive language, which is the ability to produce language.

To speak sensibly, you must think of words to convey an idea or message, formulate them into a sentence according to grammatical rules and then use your lungs, vocal cords and mouth to create sounds. Regions in your frontal, temporal and parietal lobes formulate what you want to say and the motor cortex, in your frontal lobe, enables you to speak the words.

Most of this language-related brain activity is likely occurring in the left side of your brain. But some people use an even mix of both sides and, rarely, some have right dominance for language. There is an evolutionary view that specialisation of certain functions to one side or the other may be an advantage, as many animals, especially vertebrates, exhibit brain function with prominence on one side.

Why the left side is favoured for language isn’t known. But we do know that injury or conditions such as epilepsy, if it affects the left side of the brain early in a child’s development, can increase the chances language will develop on the right side. The chance of the person being left-handed is also increased. This makes sense, because the left side of the body is controlled by the motor cortex on the right side of the brain.

To speak sensibly, you must think of words to convey an idea or message, formulate them into a sentence according to grammatical rules and then use your lungs, vocal cords and mouth to create sounds.
paul pod/Flickr, CC BY

Selective problems

In 1861, French neurologist Pierre Paul Broca described a patient unable to speak who had no motor impairments to account for the inability. A postmortem examination showed a lesion in a large area towards the lower middle of his left frontal lobe particularly important in language formulation. This is now known as Broca’s area.

The clinical symptom of being unable to speak despite having the motor skills is known as expressive aphasia, or Broca’s aphasia.

In 1867, Carl Wernicke observed an opposite phenomenon. A patient was able to speak but not understand language. This is known as receptive aphasia, or Wernicke’s aphasia. The damaged region, as you might correctly guess, is the Wernicke’s area mentioned above.

Scientists have also observed injured patients with other selective problems, such as an inability to understand most words except nouns; or words with unusual spelling, such as those with silent consonants, like reign.

These difficulties are thought to arise from damage to selective areas or connections between regions in the brain’s language network. However, precise localisation can often be difficult given the complexity of individuals’ symptoms and the uncontrolled nature of their brain injury.

We also know the brain’s language regions work together as a co-ordinated network, with some parts involved in multiple functions and a level of redundancy in some processing pathways. So it’s not simply a matter of one brain region doing one thing in isolation.

Broca’s area is named after French neurologist Pierre Paul Broca.
Wikimedia Commons

How do we know all this?

Before advanced medical imaging, most of our knowledge came from observing unfortunate patients with injuries to particular brain parts. One could relate the approximate region of damage to their specific symptoms. Broca’s and Wernicke’s observations are well-known examples.

Other knowledge was inferred from brain-stimulation studies. Weak electrical stimulation of the brain while a patient is awake is sometimes performed in patients undergoing surgery to remove a lesion such as a tumour. The stimulation causes that part of the brain to stop working for a few seconds, which can enable the surgeon to identify areas of critically important function to avoid damaging during surgery.

In the mid-20th century, this helped neurosurgeons discover more about the localisation of language function in the brain. It was clearly demonstrated that while most people have language originating on the left side of their brain, some could have language originating on the right.

Towards the later part of the 20th century, if a surgeon needed to find out which side of your brain was responsible for language – so he didn’t do any damage – he would put to sleep one side of your brain with an anaesthetic. The doctor would then ask you a series of questions, determining your language side from your ability or inability to answer them. This invasive test (which is less often used today due to the availability of functional brain imaging) is known as the Wada test, named after Juhn Wada, who first described it just after the second world war.

Brain imaging

Today, we can get a much better view of brain function by using imaging techniques, especially magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a safe procedure that uses magnetic fields to take pictures of your brain.

When we see activity in a region of the brain, that’s when there is an increase in freshly oxygenated blood flow.
from shutterstock.com

Using MRI to measure brain function is called functional MRI (fMRI), which detects signals from magnetic properties of blood in vessels supplying oxygen to brain cells. The fMRI signal changes depending on whether the blood is carrying oxygen, which means it slightly reduces the magnetic field, or has delivered up its oxygen, which slightly increases the magnetic field.

A few seconds after brain neurons become active in a brain region, there is an increase in freshly oxygenated blood flow to that brain part, much more than required to satisfy the oxygen demand of the neurons. This is what we see when we say a brain region is activated during certain functions.

Brain-imaging methods have revealed that much more of our brain is involved in language processing than previously thought. We now know that numerous regions in every major lobe (frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal lobes; and the cerebellum, an area at the bottom of the brain) are involved in our ability to produce and comprehend language.

Functional MRI is also becoming a useful clinical tool. In some centres it has replaced the Wada test to determine where language is in the brain.

Scientists are also using fMRI to build up a finer picture of how the brain processes language by designing experiments that compare which areas are active during various tasks. For instance, researchers have observed differences in brain language regions of dyslexic children compared to those without dyslexia.

Researchers compared fMRI images of groups of children with and without dyslexia while they performed language-related tasks. They found that dyslexic children had, on average, less activity in Broca’s area mainly on the left during this task. They also had less activity in or near Wernicke’s area on the left and right, and a portion of the front of the temporal lobe on the right.

Could this type of brain imaging provide a diagnostic signature of dyslexia? This is a work-in-progress, but we hope further study will one day lead to a robust, objective and early brain-imaging test for dyslexia and other disorders.

The ConversationWant to know how the brain controls your mood? Read today’s accompanying piece here.

David Abbott, Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Epilepsy Neuroinformatics Laboratory, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Schools told by Ofqual to expect more ‘variability’ in exam results this year

By Eleanor Busby (TES)
Ofqual has written to schools as pupils sit new GCSEs and A-levels for the first time

The exams regulator Ofqual has warned schools to prepare for “more variability” in results following the introduction of new GCSEs and A levels this year.

Sally Collier, chief regulator of Ofqual, has written to schools today to tell them to expect variability in their results this summer following the significant changes to the qualifications.

This summer, pupils are sitting new GCSEs in English and maths – as well as a number of new AS levels and A levels.

In her letter, Ms Collier said: “We know that it is normal for schools and colleges to see some variability in their own year-to-year results – either up or down.

“It can be due to many different factors, including differences in the ability mix of the students, different teaching approaches, changes in teaching staff or teaching time.

“We also know that when qualifications change, there is normally more variability in schools and college results, and this is what we expect for new qualifications this year.”

Ms Collier told schools that Ofqual will publish more information on this on both results days.

She also used the letter to tell schools that Ofqual is monitoring the actions of exam boards following a series of mistakes in GCSE and A-level papers this summer.

This week, exam boards OCR and AQA both apologised for errors in their exam papers.

Ms Collier said: “We expect all papers to be error-free, but we also recognise that the production of question papers is a complex process which is subject to human error and so mistakes will happen from time to time.

“When errors are not identified before the exam, we expect the exam boards to do everything they can to minimise the impact on students.

“That is our immediate priority, and we are monitoring their actions closely. Once results are issued, we will look carefully at the reasons for the errors that occurred and take action if appropriate.”

Original article (https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/schools-told-ofqual-expect-more-variability-exam-results-year)

How learning a new language improves tolerance

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Why learn a new language?
Timothy Vollmer, CC BY

Amy Thompson, University of South Florida

There are many benefits to knowing more than one language. For example, it has been shown that aging adults who speak more than one language have less likelihood of developing dementia.

Additionally, the bilingual brain becomes better at filtering out distractions, and learning multiple languages improves creativity. Evidence also shows that learning subsequent languages is easier than learning the first foreign language.

Unfortunately, not all American universities consider learning foreign languages a worthwhile investment.

Why is foreign language study important at the university level?

As an applied linguist, I study how learning multiple languages can have cognitive and emotional benefits. One of these benefits that’s not obvious is that language learning improves tolerance.

This happens in two important ways.

The first is that it opens people’s eyes to a way of doing things in a way that’s different from their own, which is called “cultural competence.”

The second is related to the comfort level of a person when dealing with unfamiliar situations, or “tolerance of ambiguity.”

Gaining cross-cultural understanding

Cultural competence is key to thriving in our increasingly globalized world. How specifically does language learning improve cultural competence? The answer can be illuminated by examining different types of intelligence.

Psychologist Robert Sternberg’s research on intelligence describes different types of intelligence and how they are related to adult language learning. What he refers to as “practical intelligence” is similar to social intelligence in that it helps individuals learn nonexplicit information from their environments, including meaningful gestures or other social cues.

Learning a foreign language reduces social anxiety.
COD Newsroom, CC BY

Language learning inevitably involves learning about different cultures. Students pick up clues about the culture both in language classes and through meaningful immersion experiences.

Researchers Hanh Thi Nguyen and Guy Kellogg have shown that when students learn another language, they develop new ways of understanding culture through analyzing cultural stereotypes. They explain that “learning a second language involves the acquisition not only of linguistic forms but also ways of thinking and behaving.”

With the help of an instructor, students can critically think about stereotypes of different cultures related to food, appearance and conversation styles.

Dealing with the unknown

The second way that adult language learning increases tolerance is related to the comfort level of a person when dealing with “tolerance of ambiguity.”

Someone with a high tolerance of ambiguity finds unfamiliar situations exciting, rather than frightening. My research on motivation, anxiety and beliefs indicates that language learning improves people’s tolerance of ambiguity, especially when more than one foreign language is involved.

It’s not difficult to see why this may be so. Conversations in a foreign language will inevitably involve unknown words. It wouldn’t be a successful conversation if one of the speakers constantly stopped to say, “Hang on – I don’t know that word. Let me look it up in the dictionary.” Those with a high tolerance of ambiguity would feel comfortable maintaining the conversation despite the unfamiliar words involved.

Applied linguists Jean-Marc Dewaele and Li Wei also study tolerance of ambiguity and have indicated that those with experience learning more than one foreign language in an instructed setting have more tolerance of ambiguity.

What changes with this understanding

A high tolerance of ambiguity brings many advantages. It helps students become less anxious in social interactions and in subsequent language learning experiences. Not surprisingly, the more experience a person has with language learning, the more comfortable the person gets with this ambiguity.

And that’s not all.

Individuals with higher levels of tolerance of ambiguity have also been found to be more entrepreneurial (i.e., are more optimistic, innovative and don’t mind taking risks).

In the current climate, universities are frequently being judged by the salaries of their graduates. Taking it one step further, based on the relationship of tolerance of ambiguity and entrepreneurial intention, increased tolerance of ambiguity could lead to higher salaries for graduates, which in turn, I believe, could help increase funding for those universities that require foreign language study.

Those who have devoted their lives to theorizing about and the teaching of languages would say, “It’s not about the money.” But perhaps it is.

Language learning in higher ed

Most American universities have a minimal language requirement that often varies depending on the student’s major. However, students can typically opt out of the requirement by taking a placement test or providing some other proof of competency.

Why more universities should teach a foreign language.
sarspri, CC BY-NC

In contrast to this trend, Princeton recently announced that all students, regardless of their competency when entering the university, would be required to study an additional language.

I’d argue that more universities should follow Princeton’s lead, as language study at the university level could lead to an increased tolerance of the different cultural norms represented in American society, which is desperately needed in the current political climate with the wave of hate crimes sweeping university campuses nationwide.

Knowledge of different languages is crucial to becoming global citizens. As former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted,

“Our country needs to create a future in which all Americans understand that by speaking more than one language, they are enabling our country to compete successfully and work collaboratively with partners across the globe.”

The ConversationConsidering the evidence that studying languages as adults increases tolerance in two important ways, the question shouldn’t be “Why should universities require foreign language study?” but rather “Why in the world wouldn’t they?”

Amy Thompson, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of South Florida

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why has the lexical approach been so long in coming?

 (The Guardian)

Twenty years after Michael Lewis used computer research to show that the phrases and word groups used in English hold the key to learning the language, not grammar rules and vocabulary, ELT remains resistant to change

teaching language chunks


Twenty years after the publication of Michael Lewis’s seminal book The Lexical approach: The state of ELT and a way forward, the bold prophecy of the title remains unfulfilled. A quick glance at any commercially available EFL textbook reveals that a traditional grammar syllabus, the main object of Lewis’s attack, is still alive and kicking, albeit more cleverly disguised. How come Lewis’s ideas have not been eagerly taken up by the mainstream English Language Teaching (ELT)?

Insights from research take a notoriously long time to seep into the teaching practice for all kinds of reasons. One of them, according to Penny Ur‘s recent opinion article in Learning English, could be that academic research is often written in an opaque, inaccessible language that doesn’t make much sense to those at the chalkface.

Deliberately written in a non-academic, teacher-friendly style, Lewis’s 1993 volume was an attempt to introduce fascinating insights from corpus linguistics into the classroom practice. By the early 1990s, corpus research (study of samples of “real-world” texts), propelled by the developments in computer technology, had began to uncover interesting facts about language and how it works. Corpus research had revealed the ubiquity of multi-word phrases, lexico-grammatical patterns and generally a much closer link between grammar and vocabulary than was previously believed.

To illustrate how certain grammar structures attract certain words, let’s take Have you ever …? which, as many teachers will know, often causes difficulty for the learner.

The most common past participles that occur with this structure are:

been / seen / had / heard / tried

In fact, these five verbs account for more than half of all occurrences of Have you ever… in the British National Corpus.

Findings such as this one underpinned Lewis’s lexical approach which proposed shifting the focus from what’s possible to what’s probable. In other words, instead of learning abstract grammar rules and then finding the words to fill the slots, learners’ attention should be directed to most common, prototypical examples of grammar in use. As far as vocabulary is concerned, new vocabulary items should likewise be presented “in company” of other words that frequently co-occur with them:

brush your teeth

commit a crime

generous donation

fundamentally flawed

In truth, Lewis’s lexical approach, the core principle of which is the oft-cited dictum “language consists of lexicalised grammar not grammaticalised lexis” did boldly away with grammar/vocabulary dichotomy. In Lewis’s view, “chunks” are the building blocks of language. The subsequent titles (Implementing the Lexical approach, 1997 and Teaching Collocation, 2000 – both by Cengage-Heinle) offered further insights into this new language description and pedagogical suggestions on how it translates into practice.

Skeptics were not convinced. There are hundreds of thousands of chunks the learner has to commit to memory – where do we start? Opponents scoffed that it’s easier to equip learners with grammar rules and set them off on a path of putting together comprehensible phrases and sentences, thus ensuring faster progress.

Undoubtedly, there are thousands of chunks (just like there are hundreds of grammar rules) and even if learning them is taxing on the brain it certainly pays off in terms of fluency when you retrieve from memory whole phrases rather than stringing words together from scratch every time you want to say something.

Native speakers take for granted their ability to retrieve from memory lexical chunks as individual wholes when speaking and writing, for example:

It’s an absolute outrage!

at no extra cost

I look forward to seeing you

it never ceases to amaze me

By some estimates, anywhere between 55% and 80% of native speaker English, depending on the genre, consists of routines and patterns that are in some way prefabricated. In fact, fluency would not be possible without recourse to a large stock of prefabricated chunks and expressions.

Chunks also play a crucial role in early second language acquisition. Learners can engage in basic conversations using chunks as unanalysed wholes:

Good morning!

How are you?

Thank you very much.

And later:

Where do you live?

How long are you staying here?

I don’t like it.

What are you doing?

These chunks can later be used as templates to generate new utterances:

What are you reading?

What are you saying?

What are you waiting for?


She told me to leave.

He asked me to marry him.

They want me to stay here.

In the past 20 years, more and more evidence has emerged to corroborate Lewis’s claims. Corpus studies have confirmed that chunks pervade our everyday language and structures which have traditionally received attention in EFL grammar pedagogy are relatively rare. Cognitive linguistics lends further credibility to the lexical approach by claiming that chunk learning can foreground acquisition of the grammar system in the second language. Learners first internalise unanalysed chunks and can then extract regularities from them, much in the same way as native speaker children master the English grammar without explicitly attending to the rules of the present perfect or past continuous.

The central role of lexis in ELT has been recognised. Textbooks routinely include collocation boxes, pages with functional language and generally pay more attention to spoken language. But, clearly, Lewis was aiming at much more.

If anything, the lexical approach for me is about grammar. Not the kind of carefully sequenced and fundamentally flawed presentation of discrete items but grammar as a search for patterns and regularities in language we use. Lewis’s goal was to effect a radical upheaval in the way we teach language and not merely bring vocabulary to the fore. But 20 years on, it is evident that this is precisely what his lexical approach has achieved and – to finish off with a chunk – we should be grateful for small mercies.

Leo Selivan is a teacher trainer and materials developer with the British Council in Tel Aviv. He maintains his own blog for EFL teachers Leoxicon



English language boom in Ireland

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EL Gazette May 2017

Ireland saw an 11 per cent rise in the number of international English language students in 2016, figures show. This is ‘hugely significant’ as it comes on the back of strong growth in 2015, said David O’Grady, chief executive of language school association Marketing English in Ireland (MEI).


Student numbers increased from 107,129 in 2015 to 119,119 last year. There was significant growth in junior (under sixteen years old) students from the EU, which supplies approximately 78 per cent of all enrolments to English language schools in the country. Only 7 per cent of students came from countries that require a visa, such as China and Saudi Arabia.

Another area of growth for the Irish ELT sector is Latin America. In three years, the country has seen a 400 per cent increase in the number of students coming from Argentina, Colombia and Chile. The International Education Strategy for Ireland 2016–2020, published by the Ministry for Education, sets goals to target and develop new markets outside of the EU.

‘If we are to achieve the targets outlined in the government strategy 2016–2020 for ELT, then we need to devote energy and expertise to areas for growth, most of which lie in markets that are visa-requiring for Ireland,’ O’Grady added. The ELT industry is worth €762 million per year to the Irish economy.


English language bar for citizenship likely to further disadvantage refugees

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has proposed tougher language requirements for new citizenship applicants.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Sally Baker, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, University of Newcastle

Citizenship applicants will need to demonstrate a higher level of English proficiency if the government’s proposed changes to the Australian citizenship test go ahead.

Applicants will be required to reach the equivalent of Band 6 proficiency of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

To achieve Band 6, applicants must correctly answer 30 out of 40 questions in the reading paper, 23 out of 40 in the listening paper, and the writing paper rewards language used “accurately and appropriately”. If a candidate’s writing has “frequent” inaccuracies in grammar and spelling, they cannot achieve Band 6

Success in IELTS requires proficiency in both the English language, and also understanding how to take – and pass – a test. The proposed changes will then make it harder for people with fragmented educational backgrounds to become citizens, such as many refugees.

How do the tests currently work?

The current citizenship test consists of 20 multiple-choice questions in English concerning Australia’s political system, history, and citizen responsibilities.

While the test does not require demonstration of English proficiency per se, it acts as an indirect assessment of language.

For example, the question: “Which official symbol of Australia identifies Commonwealth property?” demonstrates the level of linguistic complexity required.

The IELTS test is commonly taken for immigration purposes as a requirement for certain visa categories; however, the designer of IELTS argues that IELTS was never designed for this purpose. Researchers have argued that the growing strength of English as the language of politics and economics has resulted in its widespread use for immigration purposes.

Impact of proposed changes

English is undoubtedly important for participation in society, but deciding citizenship based on a high-stakes language test could further marginalise community members, such as people with refugee backgrounds who have the greatest need for citizenship, yet lack the formal educational background to navigate such tests.

The Refugee Council of Australia argues that adults with refugee backgrounds will be hardest hit by the proposed language test.

Data shows that refugees are both more likely to apply for citizenship, and twice as likely as other migrant groups to have to retake the test.

Mismatched proficiency expectations

The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), where many adult refugees access English learning upon arrival, expects only a “functional” level of language proficiency.

For many adult refugees – who have minimal first language literacy, fragmented educational experiences, and limited opportunities to gain feedback on their written English – “competency” may be prohibitive to gaining citizenship. This is also more likely to impact refugee women, who are less likely to have had formal schooling and more likely to assume caring duties.

Bar too high?

The challenges faced in re/settlement contexts, such as pressures of work and financial responsibilities to extended family, often combine to make learning a language difficult, and by extension,
prevent refugees from completing the citizenship test.

Similar patterns are evident with IELTS. Nearly half of Arabic speakers who took the IELTS in 2015 scored lower than Band 6.

There are a number of questions to clarify regarding the proposed language proficiency test:

  • Will those dealing with trauma-related experiences gain exemption from a high-stakes, time-pressured examination?
  • What support mechanisms will be provided to assist applicants to study for the test?
  • Will financially-disadvantaged members of the community be expected to pay for classes/ materials in order to prepare for the citizenship test?
  • The IELTS test costs A$330, with no subsidies available. Will the IELTS-based citizenship/ language test attract similar fees?

There are also questions about the fairness of requiring applicants to demonstrate a specific type and level of English under examination conditions that is not required of all citizens. Those born in Australia are not required to pass an academic test of language in order to retain their citizenship.

Recognising diversity of experiences

There are a few things the government should consider before introducing a language test:

1) Community consultation is essential. Input from community/ migrant groups, educators, and language assessment specialists will ensure the test functions as a valid evaluation of progression towards English language proficiency. The government is currently calling for submissions related to the new citizenship test.

2) Design the test to value different forms and varieties of English that demonstrate progression in learning rather than adherence to prescriptive standards.

3) Provide educational opportunities that build on existing linguistic strengths that help people to prepare for the test.

The ConversationEquating a particular type of language proficiency with a commitment to Australian citizenship is a complex and ideologically-loaded notion. The government must engage in careful consideration before potentially further disadvantaging those most in need of citizenship.

Sally Baker, Research Associate, Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, Lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Prepare British children for life after Brexit – teach them another language

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Just speaking English isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Kim Ridealgh, University of East Anglia

The formal negotiations to untangle the UK from the intricacies of the European Union are now well underway. And it is clear that looking forward, Britain’s new relationship with the EU will necessitate conducting trade and political communications in a new dynamic – one which is unlikely to be done in the medium of English.

When the UK leaves the EU there will be no member state remaining where English is the lead official language. “Ah”, you say, “what about Ireland, they speak English there”. Yes they do, but in Ireland, Irish Gaelic is considered the first official language.

So to trade with the EU, the UK will need high-level negotiators fluent in German, French and Spanish, which it currently does not have.

Additionally, leaving the EU will result in a restriction of immigrants from across EU member states. The need for visas will drastically reduce the number of workers who can come to the UK to fill jobs British people are either unwilling or unable to do.

And recognising this gap, the Foreign and Common Wealth office and the Ministry of Defence have opened in-house training centres to provide lessons in up to 80 different languages for their staff.

Global English

Much of this lack of language skill can be put down to the fact that children in UK schools do not learn foreign languages with the same intensity as their European neighbours.

In England in particular, languages are seen as boring, irrelevant or too hard – turning many off learning a language at a young age. And the “false-friend” of global English provides a fertile foundation for these ideas.

In contrast young people in the rest of Europe understand the need to speak at least one other language for their future prospects and they are supported by a strong holistic language education system.

Children outside the UK are taught the importance of speaking more than one language.

Since 2002, there has been a 16% decrease in applications to study a language at British universities. At secondary school level, there has been an even bigger decline – the number of pupils studying for a GCSE in a language has dropped 41%.

The number of young people taking French, German, and Spanish at A-level has also gone down by 22% in the past 14 years. German is the worst hit language – it has seen a decline in students taking it at A-Level of 45%.

Language learning

A lack of qualified teachers – almost 3,500 more language teachers are needed to meet current demand in Britain – along with a reduction in provision and resources, are just some of the reasons for this national decline in young people choosing to study a language at secondary level.

This comes despite the fact that language provision at primary level is available in some form in almost all schools in England.
The failure of the English Baccalaureate to fully engage young people with languages has also been pinpointed as another contributing factor.

The number of students studying languages has dropped.

Motivating young people is also a big challenge for teachers. At a time when morale is already low among language teachers, it can be hard to get young people to see the relevance of language learning in their own lives and future employment. Getting pupils to see the enjoyment of learning a language can also be difficult.

Part of the challenge is the perceived difficulty of the GCSE and A-Level examinations. As the British Council highlights:

The comparative difficulty of exams in languages in relation to other subjects, and widely reported harsh and inconsistent marking, are deeply demotivating for both pupils and teachers.

Transferable skills

Yet, with more investment in language provisions in secondary schools, the need to later train adults in languages while they work would not be necessary.

This lack of language skills across all employment sectors is costing the UK economy an estimated £48 billion each year, and the British Chambers of Commerce lists making language learning compulsory in secondary schools as one of its main factors for economic growth.

All secondary school pupils should learn a language.

It’s at this point that I’m usually asked, “but if Britain is leaving the EU, then why do languages matter anymore?” And my answer is always the same, it is precisely because Britain is leaving the EU that languages matter even more. Not only to avoid isolationist attitudes evolving further, but to ensure that young people have the skills they need to succeed in a global jobs market.

And it’s not just about learning a language – languages open doors, improving mobility, intercultural awareness, empathy, and confidence for the young people who study them.

The ConversationThe benefit of the transferable skills young people gain from learning a language is perhaps more valuable than the language itself. And limiting the access young people have to languages simply means not preparing them for a new post-Brexit world.

Kim Ridealgh, Lecturer in Sociolinguistics, University of East Anglia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.