The trouble with language surveys

I saw and advertisement in The Guardian (p.6 Tuesday 15th February) that asked me to take part in a world languages survey. I assumed that the survey would be about which languages are learned, how they are learnt and which languages are considered most important for worldwide communication.

As I have been studying the language learning process by observing my experience learning Spanish as a beginner, I thought it might be useful to respond to the survey.  

The website ( was easy to access, the survey clearly marked out and the questions easy to respond to. There were very few times when there seemed no place for the answer I wanted to give although I found it incredible that English was not included as a language. Also, the survey was just the right length – long enough to gather useful information and short enough not to become a chore to complete.

However, the survey seemed more concerned with me, with whether I taught languages or not and what would encourage me to teach languages more. This surprised me. I felt as though these questions were almost irrelevant. If the aim of the survey was to get a picture of world languages in the field of education, I expected it to ask additional questions about which languages I believed were the most relevant and important for students worldwide to learn, how these should be taught and how the teaching and learning of them could be better supported.

Little reference was made to effect of making language learning no longer a compulsory part of the curriculum. It seemed logical and common sense that fewer students would take up the subject if it was not compulsory. Whether we like it or not, our world is shrinking and it seems obvious to me that we need to be able to communicate in more than one language to survive. Bringing back the study of a language as a compulsory part of the curriculum seems to be the logical answer to the problem of the decline in language learning in secondary schools and above.

A survey of teachers’ and students’ language learning preferences and needs, in my opinion, would be a useful follow- up and a much more pertinent and effective survey.  

One final point: which is more valuable – the results of a survey of thousands, or a single, in-depth study?  It is commonly accepted that there is a place for both in our attempts to discover the truth, but is the knowledge that most people learn French more important than understanding how an individual develops an appreciation and empathy with a second language?   

I leave you to decide.


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