Businesses or Government: who is responsible for language learning?

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Research published at the end of 2010 shows that Welsh companies could increase their export sales by almost 50 percent if they employed staff with better language skills.

This has lead to Welsh businesses and language experts to call for more to be done to get young people learning foreign languages. These statistics show the enormous benefit of this venture for businesses, but does this ultimately mean that they should take over the responsibility of teaching languages from government schools?

The Welsh Assembly Government has been trying for several years to boost the number of students learning modern foreign languages. In its 2009 review it revealed that just 27 percent of Welsh GCSE students studied a language. What could the government do to improve this figure and promote the career benefits of studying languages?

Perhaps more ‘trendy’ or youthful initiatives should be used to appeal directly to 14 year olds (those selecting their GCSE options). Financial investment could also be required to increase in-school advertising, put on more events such as language fairs and foreign trips or to implement a review of the current curriculum. But would the government ultimately still be doing too little too late? Many researchers believe that language acquisition is at its best before the age of 6, after which sounds and connections become less efficient and effective.

The problem with teaching languages so early is that before school starts (age 4 or 5) there is no mandatory nursery system into which a language programme could be inserted. Parents would have to take the responsibility for introducing the first stages of a language themselves. Even if schools began compulsory language classes at primary level they could still face difficulties; 5 year olds cannot be taught in the same way as 15 year olds and with Welsh primary classes averaging a 20:1 teacher-pupil ratio second languages could not be taught in as immersive a way as you learn your first language (in terms of cultural environment and focus on your learning). Language experts often state that languages are learnt most effectively when you are immersed within them, either through foreign travel or one-on-one parental/guardian teaching.

However, experts have countered the belief that languages are most effectively learnt young by arguing that the only benefit to infantile teaching is that you have longer to develop the language before needing to utilize it in your independent adult life. Such an argument thus leads into business; we only spend 12 to 14 years in free education compared to 45 or 55 years in employment, so shouldn’t businesses take more responsibility for teaching us languages?

For large companies language learning is already part of the employment process. Systems such as work placements or inter-continental relocations offer an immersive experience of other languages and cultures. Small to medium size businesses are less immersive; although they usually have lower profit margins so surely cannot hold as much responsibility as larger companies? However, this research pinpoints the maximum export increases (44.5 percent) as occurring within small to medium size businesses that employ those with strong language skills. So how could these smaller businesses approach language learning?

Businesses could begin with recruitment, making multi-lingual positions a key part of their structure. Although with the low take-up of languages at GCSE without school support this might not be sustainable, certainly for new employees under 20. Therefore the focus could extend to the linguistically curious rather than the linguistically qualified. An initial investment in paid language courses (or paid days off for employees who want to self-fund said courses) could lead to a long-term gain through profit increase, some of this profit could then be reinvested in the recruitment system to pay for future employees to learn languages. Mandatory language learning could lead to long-term gain for only an initial short-term cost.

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