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FE News exclusive with Alan Corbett of the Association of South East Coleges marking European Day

How often do we read or hear that British people are hopeless linguists? The media is obsessed with the idea that there is no such thing as a British linguist and we, as a nation, are seemingly resigned to the fact that our international trade will suffer as a result of our inability to communicate in foreign languages. Yet the truth is not so clear cut and perhaps today ““ European Languages Day 2007 – it is worth reflecting on the fine work undertaken within the Further Education Sector to face this serious matter.

Whilst it is true that we are not the best linguists in Europe, it is utterly wrong to accept that we are a lost cause in the linguistic field. The fact is that the British, when motivated, are exceptionally capable linguists. More so than our European neighbours, who will always struggle with English pronunciation, given that our mother tongue is not phonetic. Colleges in South East England are very much aware of the need to provide linguistic training and are proving that British people are more than able to master languages as one aspect of their work. Thanet College is a good example, which has been training railway staff to work in French and showing that mastery of the language is not a great obstacle, even though most of the students arrive with no prior foreign language knowledge. Each year Canterbury College sends students on the Tourism and Hospitality courses to Fécamp in France, where they gain invaluable work experience, whilst living and breathing the language. Students of Travel & Tourism at City College, Brighton & Hove must achieve an NVQ in French or Spanish as part of their training. Looking towards a Chinese dominated future, Alton College has pioneered a Mandarin course, which is proving to be very popular. Other colleges are to launch Polish courses, reflecting new economic realities of a 21st century Europe.

Whilst I am far from complacent about the state of language learning in the UK, I feel that progress is being made to meet the challenge of training a bilingual workforce, thereby creating jobs and prosperity. But we must cease our national habit of negative reporting on the nation’s linguistic skills, in favour of more balanced articles reflecting a hint of optimism.

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Alan Corbett, International Officer, Association of South East Colleges

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