Comment: Mind The Language Gap

Nick Clegg proves the UK isn't as bad at learning languages as the stereotype suggests.

By Sylke Riester

The question of language skills levels in Britain rarely strays very far from the public eye, and with the UK ranking second to bottom on a European language skills league table its easy to see why this continues to be such a hot topic.

Despite this poor ranking, speaking many languages continues to be something to be aspired to in the UK. With the recent election in May, attention once again turned to the topic, with Nick Clegg being widely referenced as somewhat unusual example of multilingual talent. Speaking several languages, he quickly drew attention as an example of the language prowess we aspire to.


All of this attention only adds further weight to the long-standing perception that Brits just aren't "good" at learning languages - a commonly held belief that is just not true - every one of us is an expert linguist - after all, we have all done pretty well at learning at least one language - our mother tongue.

The rise of technology in recent decades has changed the face of language learning and opened up previously unthought-of possibilities - gone are the days of grammar tables and vocabulary lists being the only option. New learning methodologies allow learners to fit language learning around their existing schedules, with online and computer-based learning offering more convenient and accessible options than ever before.

I really believe that now is the time to look at things differently: despite the statistics we see on a daily basis, it's not about whether one person or one nation is better at language learning than another. We all learnt our first language as children and technology enables us to tap into the natural ability we all posses.

One of my favorite quotes about languages is from Nelson Mandela, who once said: "Speak to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his mind, but speak to him in his own language, and that goes to his heart".

The business, personal and psychological benefits of speaking a second (or third and fourth) language are indisputable; speaking the same language as clients, suppliers, colleagues or stakeholders could help build relationships, open doors and enhance understanding, giving organisations or individuals an edge in an increasingly competitive global environment. In fact, this was seen in action through Mr Clegg's recent tour of Europe, with the UK media making note of his use of Spanish, Dutch and German to build relationships and communicate better with his European counterparts.

Sylke Riester is managing director of Rosetta Stone, Europe. She previously worked for Tele2, a leading Swedish telecommunications company active in 11 European countries. Her roles included marketing and sales director, chief executive and director of sales for the Tele2 Group. A native Dutch speaker, Sylke is from a German family and so speaks German as well as English.

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