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Parlez-vous Francais? We’d like to, but….


The British are often accused of being slow off the mark as far as mastering additional languages are concerned, but a new survey shows that even if we don't put it into practice, there's a will to learn.

The new report, ‘Divided by Language’, published by adult learning organisation NIACE finds that 44% of adults questioned would like to learn another language, given the time and opportunity. It also reveals that, although they make up a relatively small part of the population as a whole, ethnic minorities are miles ahead of white British adults in learning other languages - at least 45% of them speak more than two languages, compared to just 11% of white British adults.

At the time of the study, which was based on responses from 4,000 adults, only 5% were undertaking any form of language-based formal learning. Although the key reasons to lack of take-up are common across formal learning as a whole, Sue Cara, Associate Director of NIACE is encouraged by the figures which show nearly half of the population is interested in learning an additional language: "What the survey uncovers is exciting and challenges the view that little learning of languages exists in England and Wales. Being older, poor and of a lower social class all result in less engagement."

It's also likely that many feel intimidated by the standard of English they hear spoken by visitors from abroad, who are often fluent in at least two languages, but the Nuffield Languages Enquiry warned that this is not an excuse that can be made - native British speakers with no other language skills could be forced out of the jobs market as an increasing number of employers look for staff who can converse in several languages as a matter of course.

Learning a language need not mean becoming fluent in it, however, and with the year 2001 being designated as the European Year of Languages, The Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT) is planning a wide range of events to help open people's eyes to the possibilities of learning language. Among the events on offer:

  • A series of sessions on improving your French, German or Spanish being held around the country, organised by the Open University - contact Susan Fairbass for details on 01908 652150

  • Professional training in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Urdu, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Modern Greek and Russian available to modern foreign language teachers in secondary schools, further education and higer education colleges, Organised by Edexcel Foundation

  • Multilingual Britain - a touring exhibition being organised by the British Council (contact Andrew Thomas for details

For a full listing of events throughout the year, see

For its part, NIACE is offering the chance to win one of six £200 learning vouchers to those who write in telling NIACE why they like learning or teaching languages. Postcards with details about the competition are available in English, Welsh, French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Cantonese, Somali, Punjabi, Gujerati, Urdu, Bengali and Turkish, and all cards that are returned with learning messages will be exhibited during Adult Learners’ Week (12-18 May, 2001).

NIACE is also organising an informal survey as part of its contribution to the Year. Community groups with bi-lingual and multi-lingual skills are being invited to help provide answers to the ways in which communities benefit through the use of languages. To take part in the survey, write to Campaigns & Promotions, NIACE, 21 De Montfort Street, Leicester LE1 7GE.


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