LAGB EC 'Linguistics at School' Panel

Reading, September 5th 2001

Why are the British such poor language learners? Sociolinguistic issues

For a full version of this paper, click here.

Mike Reynolds (University of Sheffield)


It is a commonplace to say that the British are "rubbish at languages", and "Europe's language dunces". My presentation will examine the presupposition in the question, and try to assess how much truth there is in it. I shall present research evidence which compares the performance in and attitudes to modern foreign languages (MFLs) of British learners and those of other nationalities (e.g. Milton & Meara 1998, Young 1994) which will show that there is truth to the presupposition. However, if this and other research is examined closely it can be shown that it is easy to exaggerate the negative aspects and to overlook positive signs. The fall in numbers of A-level takers over recent years is often cited as a negative indicator for the popularity of MFLs in England and Wales, but the advent of the new AS-level shows signs of an upswing in the popularity of modern languages. Marshall (2001) has talked of a number of myths surrounding MFLs and attitudes towards them, among sixth-formers and university students, and has set about trying to replace the 'myths' with 'realities'.

There is evidence to show that the extrinsic motivation of British to foreign language learning is reasonable (e.g. Lee, Buckland & Shaw 1998; Arthur & Beaton 2000). What needs boosting is the intrinsic motivation of pupils.

The presentation will focus on two areas:

  1. Policies on MFLs in the UK, with some comparison with those of other European nations. Particular attention will be given to the Nuffield Languages Inquiry, and the response to it by the UK Government. The contrast in policy and implementation will be drawn between England and Wales and Scotland in this respect, with the latter country adopting a thoroughgoing introduction of MFLs in the primary sector (though this programme is acknowledged to have its problems). The need for a national languages strategy, as advocated by Nuffield will be stressed.
  2. Attitudes and motivation towards MFLs among British learners, in which the importance of socio-cultural factors such as parental support, perceptions of employability, and the mass media, are seen as crucial.

The presentation will end with an indication of signs of hope and signs of concern about the situation of MFLs in England and Wales. The teaching and research community needs to maintain pressure on the Government to implement Nuffield, and to ensure that adequate, larger-scale research is carried out to this end.


Arthur, Lore & Fran Beaton (2000): 'Adult foreign language learners: motivation, attitudes and behaviours.' Language Learning Journal 21: 31-36.

Lee, Jeff, David Buckland & Glenis Shaw (1998): The Invisible Child. London, CILT.

Marshall, Keith (2001): 'Languages and careers: myths and realities'. Keynote speech given at Sheffield Multilingual City Annual Conference, Sheffield ; July 5th 2001.

Milton, James & Paul Meara (1998): 'Are the British really bad at learning foreign languages?'. Language Learning Journal 18: 68-76.

Young, Andrea S. (1994): 'Motivational state and process within the sociolinguistic context: an Anglo-French comparative study of school pupils learning foreign languages'. PhD thesis, Aston University.