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Scotland on the global stage: Are we doing enough to promote language skills?

By Elaine Collinson - Posted on 29 January 2013

Our Director of International Undergraduate Programmes, Elaine Collinson, gives her insight into the teaching of foreign languages in Scotland.

There has been a worrying decline in foreign language study in Scotland, according to recent figures from the British Council. While in 2001 almost all secondary school pupils studied second languages, that figure has now fallen to just 67%.

At a time when developing international links is a key priority – the Scottish Government wants to see a 50% increase in the value of international trade by 2017 – this raises fundamental concerns about Scottish companies’ abilities to compete on the global stage.

What’s more, the languages being studied – French, German, and Italian  – while useful on a summer holiday will do little to help companies enter key emerging markets like China, Brazil and India. While everyone can remember at least one or two words of school French or Spanish, how many of us would be comfortable saying “hello” in Mandarin?

If Scotland is to continue to grow and develop, it is essential all languages and especially those with such economic significance are promoted.  However, we also need to appreciate how language learning in Scotland has changed and adapt the way we track and measure its success.

Just charting formal language study from university, college and school records will simply no longer work. People now learn differently, gone are the days of fumbled pronunciations in dusty classrooms,  instead, people today prefer to learn by taking language holidays or spending time working or studying abroad.

The growth of the internet has also lead to an explosion in online language courses, while mobile forms of media mean that people can now study languages in their own time, wherever and whenever they like.

From our experience at Strathclyde Business School, today’s students are acutely aware of the importance of foreign languages and international experience to their future prospects.

We work closely with our university colleagues in Humanities & Social Sciences to ensure that our language teaching meets these requirements and use our links with industry, through organisations such as Glasgow City Council, to introduce students to wider international business networks.

This approach, we’ve found, has seen applications for our Masters in International Business and Modern Languages, for example, reach higher levels than before and have also seen increases in the  number of students studying abroad, both during the academic year and as part of extra-curricular study camps and foreign exchanges.

When we opened applications to the ‘Study China’ programme, which gave students the opportunity to spend two weeks learning in China over the Christmas break, we were surprised by the numbers who applied.

The problem is existing assessment methods are focused on formal language learning and often fail to take into account the extra-curricular language study that students are involved with. Summer school, foreign exchanges and participation in international competitions and study groups, for example, are often overlooked.

To gain a more accurate picture of language provision and study in Scotland we need to change assessment methods and become more active in tracking what individuals are learning. At Strathclyde Business School we are currently developing new methods of charting our students’ activities to create ‘international CVs’ to demonstrate their language and international experience when entering careers after graduation.

The more information we are able to chart, the better we can represent Scotland as an internationally focused, attractive trading partner and the more opportunities we can create for our skilled, local talent.

How are your languages? How else might we improve language skills in Scotland? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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