Pandemic a wake-up call on language learning decline across English-speaking world

1 Dec 2020

The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates how essential foreign language skills are to international cooperation and highlights the need for anglophone nations to step up language learning, the British Academy warns today in an unprecedented joint statement with organisations from the USA, Canada and Australia.

Published today, The Importance of Languages in Global Context calls on governments, policy makers, educators and industry to take “concerted, systematic and coordinated” action to increase capacity for easily accessible education in a broad range of languages.

The statement is signed by the British Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and the Royal Society of Canada.

The academies highlight the key role that language skills play in international cooperation, especially during global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic when researchers, governments and healthcare workers need to share accurate information. However, anglophone nations are not producing enough speakers of languages other than English to meet 21st-century needs and are not doing enough to support those who are already multilingual to use and develop their valuable skills.

To build foreign language skills in countries where English dominates, the academies call for more language education in schools, colleges, universities and workplaces, with three main goals:

  1. To celebrate all languages, including those spoken by minority and indigenous populations. This means protecting against discrimination on the basis of language, preserving linguistic diversity and continuing access to education across a full range of languages
  2. To acknowledge the English language’s position as a world language by enabling full access to literate English, recognising this may be enhanced by awareness of other languages
  3. To gain greater language skills by providing every student with access to learning additional languages. This will foster literacy and educational attainment, build confidence, enhance employability and help them to navigate multicultural environments.

The academies also argue that students from every socioeconomic background must have equal access to language education to reach their full potential in the 21st century.

Professor Neil Kenny FBA, lead Fellow for languages, said:

"Foreign language learning in the anglophone world has been in decline for too long – and the COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call. Anglophone nations need to urgently develop and implement language policies that are explicit, coordinated and comprehensive, making access to the world’s languages a core feature and indispensable part of the education of every student, of every age, beginning with valuing the language(s) learned at home.

"By increasing capacity for, and widening access to, language learning, anglophone nations will be able to more effectively cooperate with others and tackle the challenges of the 21st century. Right now, the main challenge is COVID-19 but climate change, the growth of misinformation, threats to democracy and, indeed, future pandemics, will all require fast and seamless international cooperation. To work together, the people of the world must be able to speak to each other and be understood.

"Earlier this year the British Academy and partners published a national strategy to revive language learning in the UK from early years education through to adulthood. We stand ready to assist the UK government in implementing these, or similar, recommendations. If government and civil society pull together, the UK could become a linguistic powerhouse: more prosperous, more productive, more influential and more innovative. We must act soon to make this a reality."

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