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Language soft skills key to AI future


How, and why to fight the decline in language learning

The aim of turning Britain into a “twenty-first century exporting superpower” is so laudable that it even brings together Remainers and Brexiters. But it was ironic that Liam Fox’s speech setting out the aim of boosting Britain’s exports to 35% of GDP from 30% was delivered in the two week period where A level and GSCE results highlight a continuous drop in interest in studying foreign languages.

The government, including its International Trade Secretary, seems to lack the joined-up thinking on the extra skills needed to increase exports – not that the increased support from embassies and government departments are unwelcome.

Language skills are being called for by business as much today as they will be in years to come. A CBI/Pearson employer survey showed increasing, unsatisfied demand for languages: over 50% of businesses rated French as useful for their business, over 35% Mandarin, with others wanting everything from Russian to Japanese. Almost 40% of employers were dissatisfied with graduates’ international cultural awareness, compared to 30% the year before.

According to a June British Council report, the prospect of Brexit has exacerbated the problem, ranging from hostile or indifferent parental attitudes, to problems recruiting EU teachers of foreign languages who are unsure about their reception. The bureaucratic form-filling attached to student exchanges does not help.

Jack Ma, one of China’s, and the world’s, most successful entrepreneurs, highlighted yet another reason to learn languages. The founder of Ali Baba, whose e-commerce and tech company’s market capitalisation stands at $468bn, says, “Computers are always smarter than you. AI will kill a lot of jobs. People need to develop soft skills (my italics) to compete.”

Among those soft skills, language skills are paramount. They open the mind to empathy, to new experiences, to continuous learning, to humour, teamwork and cultural awareness – elements that together distinguish humans from robots.

Arguments against learning languages don’t stack up. Everyone speaks English? Not true. Never underestimate how important it is to speak your counterpart’s language, even if their English is impeccable. A light conversation in Mandarin, say, acknowledges the importance you give to their culture and will make a deal happen faster.

Plus, we are a travelling nation, with 72.8 million visits overseas by UK residents last year, an increase of 3% on the year before. A smattering of Spanish as you travel amidst the Mayan ruins of Guatemala will allow you to engage with a local about his young son’s football career and his dreams of one day playing for Chelsea.

Other mono-linguists argue that wearable translating devices are a reality and getting better by the day. Why go through years of hassle to learn a language when technology does it for you in an instant? Machines are useful, but they cannot reproduce the subtleties of language, the personal connection, and the delight of making mistakes – a classic “je suis plein” to mean “I am full” after a meal when in fact it means “I am pregnant (like a cow or a goat).”

Lastly, there is the myth that if you are not gifted for languages you shouldn’t bother. Nonsense. Unless the Dutch nation has a genetic quirk that allows them all to learn a couple of languages by 16 years old, or the Germans have a peculiar affinity for English, we are all capable of picking up enough of a foreign language to communicate.

Three things need to change.

The government and business need to put the same emphasis on languages as they do on STEM. (In fact, many STEM graduates in this country speak another language because they were educated abroad, where learning a language is deemed as important as engineering). A public campaign, including social media, needs to bring home the importance of the subject in the development of children’s soft skills and their job prospects.

Learning a language should start much earlier, at nursery, when the effort involved is minimal. The (absurd) emphasis on being able to write a grammatically exact sentence should be dropped for a (sensible) emphasis on listening and speaking. The fact that the “oral” part of a language GCSE involves writing an essay and then reciting it parrot-like has nothing to do with oral skills and everything to do with memorisation.

Tech should be used to make learning fun. Take Duolingo, a free platform with 200 million users across the world. It can teach you, say, Spanish in a “casual” way for 5 minutes a day or in an “insane” way at 20 minutes a day. Or, which uses unscripted videos by young native speakers, giving a touch of authenticity and allowing the student to visualise a real person with whom they can identify and imagine communicating. All apps use games and humour.

When top law firm Freshfields merged with German firm Bruckhaus in 2000 the British lawyers found their German counterparts spoke excellent, literal English. There was, however, a bit of an issue with idioms. This reportedly led to a memo explaining that when an English lawyer says, “What an interesting idea,” they mean “What a load of codswallop!” It also explained the intricacies of cricket analogies.

Learning languages makes sense at all ages. For those of us getting on a bit, studies show that learning a new language can slow down the onset of dementia by three to six years. Worth a try? Russian, here I come!

A version of this article was published in The Daily Telegraph on 26th August 2018