Overseas businesses wanting to set up in Britain have complained to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the lack of foreign language skills among British graduates. Managers of leading companies already here say they prefer to appoint foreign nationals because they assume that British graduates cannot speak a foreign language.
So says an article in today's Times. I have commented on it, because this is the sort of thing that annoys me. When people go on about the good language skills of natives of other countries, they do not mean good foreign language skills at all, they mean good English skills. You try learning Greek, Korean, Latvian, Dutch or another so-called minority language in Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark and so on through the alphabet. You'll be very hard-pressed to find a class.
The governments of Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Romania, Japan etc have no problems deciding which language their schools should teach. The answer is obvious -- English. It's not quite so simple for English-speaking countries. Which language should our children learn? Is French more useful than Spanish? Would Chinese ensure that youngsters got jobs? It's difficult to say.
One of the sources cited in the above article said potential employees should have "a good grasp of the parent company’s home language", but that home language could be anything, and how is an 11-year-old to know which companies will have vacancies ten years later to aid his or her foreign language choice at school?
There are many competent linguists in Britain and thousands of enthusiastic language learners. I do not have to travel far from home to find a class in Polish, Greek, Russian, Irish, Welsh and many other languages. I am a moderator for the Open College, and at the last count you could gain one of their qualifications in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Welsh, Arabic, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Greek, Gujarati, Irish, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Panjabi, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, Turkish and Urdu. The British foreign-language learning landscape has a breadth that few other countries can match.