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Don't take away the one thing that will guarantee a thriving global Britain

Language learning always seems to be the first casualty of budget cuts in education. Nothing could be more short-sighted

French class: learning languages at school is advantageous
French class: learning languages at school is advantageous Credit: PA

Is beannacht é teanga a fhoghlaim. 

Or as I used to say in English, before starting to learn Gaelic during Lockdown: learning a language is a blessing.  

The joy of discovering how to read and write words in a tongue that is not your own can never be underestimated. It’s code-breaking, but with letters not numbers. Brain training of a type our ancestors knew before computers. A skill that you can spend a lifetime perfecting.

And the prize at the end? The chance to communicate with others in a completely new way.  Their way, not yours. Learning a language is brave, generous, challenging and always rewarding.

Count up the ‘soft’ benefits: the confidence speaking a second or third language brings, the way it makes you view the world through another’s eyes and helps you to access their culture, not to mention proven effect in staving off brain decay and diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Then there’s language learning as a skill to enhance the smartest CV. A poll by the National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy in 2010 found that that languages came second only to IT in a list of desirable skills for job candidates. 

One in four (43 per cent) recruiters claimed speaking a second language gives a candidate an advantage when applying for a job.

Plus, polyglots earn more: the mean salary of language graduates three years after finishing university is ahead of that of graduates of engineering, maths, physics and astronomy, and chemistry, the same research showed.

Yet despite all these blessings, the opportunity to learn languages early and in a classroom - and not as I have been doing, via the app Duolingo snatching moments before bed - is disappearing. Colleges and sixth forms are dropping French and German courses, the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned, as a result of budget cuts

Meanwhile GCSE students studying modern foreign languages for exams in 2021 have been warned that Ofqual is removing the requirement for assessments to use words outside vocabulary lists, and will “permit glossing where necessary whilst maintaining the level of knowledge and accuracy needed for the highest grades”.

The oral element will be subject to assessment not exam, and be marked pass, merit or distinction, and not contributing to the final grade: as clear a sign as any that actual spoken fluency is not as regarded highly here as we know it to be in other countries.

Does it matter? English is after all the most spoken language in the world - with more than 1,130 million native speakers, according to languages website Ethnologue.

Of course it does.  At a time when we are charting our course on a new global future, we need all the skills we can muster. Brexit doesn’t make language learning less useful but more so. 

Cavil if you want at lessons in the old European favourites of French or German, although both are spoken widely around the world - France is the fifth most common language ahead of Arabic - and are in themselves excellent languages to study from a pedagogical perspective. French is an access language for other Romance languages and German a brilliant way to hone grammar. 

Meanwhile Spanish and Portuguese are both also in the top 10 of most widely spoken tongues in the world.

Perhaps part of the way languages seem to be so readily dumped at the first whiff of budget cuts is the historic notion that we Brits are lazy at languages so no one will care.  

Yet, reality tells us this simply isn’t so.  Over lockdown, Duolingo reported that there was a 300 per cent growth in language learners in the UK in the week after March 23. 

It was a far greater spike than the 66 per cent seen in the US or Germany, or even the 94 per cent posted in Italy.

And what does Duolingo tell us we are choosing to learn? Currently it’s Spanish (25 per cent), French (19 per cent) and German (8 per cent). Old habits die hard.

Curiously, too, there are more people choosing to learn Welsh than Chinese - which rather gives the lie to the idea that language learning is about global aspirations beyond anything else. Sometimes it’s about what we want to learn of our homes.

My own passion for Gaelic was triggered not by the idea that I am about to go into import-export with a small business in Corcaigh (that’s Cork to you). 

It was by a notion that it might be nice to read the 1949 Irish classic Cré na Cille (which is sometimes translated as Churchyard Clay) by Irish-language writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain.  

I won’t lie. I’m not there yet. Though I can differentiate between the words for European Union and Blarney Castle, colours such as purple and grey, and fruits like apples and bananas.  I’m guessing since Cré  na Cille was originally rejected by a publisher for being “too Joycean” I am a few light years away from deciphering more than scattered words yet the only reason to stop learning would be if my head were to be turned by another language: Danish has caught my eye more than once. I’d also like to back up my Indonesian Bahasa which consists solely, at present, of the phrase saya tedak bodo (usefully translating as I am not an idiot).

Start, stop, add in another? That’s not the point. With language learning, the joy is in the journey. The accumulation of words and sentences which open the mind in an ever widening linguistic experience. There’s no end game, no limits.

And that’s where Global Britain is - on the start of a journey into the unknown. As our students grow into the next generation of entrepreneurs and business people, they will need languages - however humble the grasp, however unusual the tongue. Successful trading is more than balance sheets and deals. It’s about winning hearts, minds and ears, too.