It is hard to know whether being brought up with English as a first language is a benefit or a hindrance. Labelled the ‘language of international communications’, those that are equipped with it are able to speak more freely around the world than anyone with any other language. But, as a result, there has been a lack of initiative to encourage widespread education of foreign languages to a high enough level in the UK; only 9% of 15 year olds being competent in their first foreign language. This has led to a language deficit.
This puts the UK at a disadvantage to the rest of the world where a higher-percentage of people speak multiple languages, including English. According to the authoritative manifesto released by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Modern Languages earlier this month, it is now the case that ‘speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as no English’.
As a result of this language deficit the APPG asserts that the UK economy loses up to £50bn a year through missed opportunities within global trade and job markets. Furthermore, the UK is also damaged in respect to its diplomatic, cultural and reputational standing in the world.
Baroness Coussins, Chair of the APPG on Modern Languages explains further:
The clear outcome of these findings according to the APPG is that there must be a huge shift toward prioritising the teaching of languages in our educational system, throughout all of the schooling system and to a much higher level.
One of the major supporters of the APPG’s manifesto is the British Council, which last year published a document detailing the most important foreign Languages For The Future and necessarily the languages which should be more widely taught within the UK, to better address its language deficit.
Here at Lattitude Global Volunteering we couldn’t agree further that more should be done to increase the language skills of young people in the UK, particularly in those languages outlined by the British Council as being the languages of the future. This view is reinforced by the language composition of our own staff, where among the 20 staff of our Reading office alone, no less than 18 languages are spoken, admittedly to varying degrees. This includes most commonly the likes of Spanish, French and German, but also a myriad of quite unusual languages such as Bulgarian, Latin, Khmer, Bislama, Tonga and even a Scottish dialect, Doric.
But, as well as mainstream education, we would also argue that overseas volunteering is a great investment option to be considered to help develop the language skills of young people in the UK. Lattitude Global Volunteering alone provides placements in countries where 5 of the British Council’s top 10 languages of the future are spoken; 4 out of the top 5!
In response to the publishing of this manifesto by the APPG on Modern Languages, we asked our alumni how volunteering overseas had enhanced their language skills and we had an overwhelming response:
Joe Baynham, China
I had no intention of studying a language at uni, let alone Mandarin! If I’m honest I really didn’t enjoy languages at school and did not continue them into college.During my placement in China the introduction to Chinese we received sparked a real interest in the language for me and this interest grew into a genuine enthusiasm as I started to pick up more and more throughout the placement and was able to communicate with locals in my day to day life and later travels. As a result of my time with Lattitude, I took extra modules when I came back to the UK to study at university, and have since graduated with a BA in business and management with proficiency in Mandarin Chinese.If I could have told myself back before the placement that I would end up studying Mandarin I would have thought it was impossible, but I’ve enjoyed studying the language hugely and owe a lot of that to my Lattitude Placement.
Roxanne Parnham, Argentina
My experience with Lattitude in Argentina gave me good Spanish language skills (I knew very little before I left) and inspired me to study Spanish at university! So my placement really had a big impact on the decisions I made for the future.
Natalie Sew, China
I’d always wanted to learn another language but found it difficult whilst at school. I took a Lattitude placement in China and decided to try and learn Chinese. I found that because I was living there I soon overcame a lot of my earlier anxieties about learning Chinese and just threw myself into it. I was lucky that my school assigned me a Chinese teacher, but even better than that I had all my students who were more than willing to correct their teacher’s Chinese mishaps! After 6 months on placement I became confident enough to go travelling by myself and kept my skills up with evening classes when I returned to the UK. I’ve now been awarded funding through the Chinese Scholarship Council to study at Fudan University in Shanghai for one year, to build on my language skills and work towards conducting social research in China. I would never have had the confidence to travel independently or believed I could work in another language, but my experiences on placement helped give me the skills and showed me what I could accomplish.
Korede Bolade, Japan
The placement forced me to speak in Japanese day in, day out which is what I wanted. My Japanese improved greatly during the time I was there and this encouraged me to continue learning after I came back. I ended up sitting the Japanese language proficiency test and passing the second highest level, which means I have an upper intermediate ability in Japanese. I have gone on to learn other languages as a result, including Korean and Portuguese.
Vicki Offland, China
I had already decided on my degree in Russian and Chinese, before I went and volunteered in China as an English teacher. However, I’d never studied Chinese before, so my 5 months in China gave me a good chance to find out what I would be getting myself in for. What really became apparent as I moved about the areas of China was how everywhere the majority of the population’s English knowledge was limited to greetings. This made me realise that if I ever really wanted to come back to this country, I should really try to make the most of my Chinese studies at university. I was so impressed when I returned several years later and found I could actually have meaningful conversations with the locals rather than struggling with some sort of sign language. Deciding to study Chinese was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. A languages degree has left me with a very open career path at the end of university, which is ideal because in the past five years I’ve struggled to come to a concrete decision in what I want to do in the future. Employers, across all disciplines, hugely value language skills, particularly in today’s interdependent world. However, first and foremost, learning the language of a place you’re going is a respectful gesture towards locals and something they hugely appreciate.
Reading through the stories of just some of our volunteers, it is clear that volunteering overseas uniquely instils an enthusiasm for languages and a real world understanding of their practical use and importance in our globalised world, which is hard to convey in a typical educational environment. They also reveal how fundamental languages are to unlocking the final barrier to a truly insightful cultural experience and exchange; bringing communities around the world closer together and allowing the next generation of young people to better understand the world they are inheriting. This helps explain why, against the grain of the growing language deficit in the UK our volunteers are ignited with a life-long passion to learn foreign languages and pursue relevant careers.
If you’ve volunteered overseas with Lattitude or any other organisation, we’d love to hear about how it affected your interest in learning a foreign language. You can get in touch with us by messaging us on Facebook or emailing us at email@example.com.