On a recent trip to Belgium I soon realised that every person I encountered spoke at least four languages, its three national languages – Flemish, French and German – and English.
In another small EU country, Luxembourg, the majority of people are fluent in Luxembourgish, French and German.
So how does that compare to the Cyprus Republic, a place with two national languages, Greek and Turkish, and with many tourists and residents from a plethora of countries?
Official figures say 98.2 per cent are fluent in Greek and 43 per cent in English. A mere two per cent in the Republic speak Turkish, four per cent are fluent in French and 3.2 per cent in Russian and just 1.8 per cent in German.
Most people learn languages at school early in life but apart from learning English, the choices in the state system in Cyprus are limited. At the University of Cyprus, the options are far wider but few students take any to a high level.
“I am learning German because it might be good for a future job, and especially in the economic crisis,” said Katerina Vinogradova, 21, who is in the second semester of a German course at the language centre of the university. She already speaks Greek, Russian, English and some French.
“I was influenced by friends who study in Germany,” added fellow student Polina Nicolaou, also 21.
“I went to visit them and became curious.” She has previously studied French and has a basic knowledge of Spanish apart from speaking English fluently.
“There are few students who are interested in anything else but English,” Katerina added. “They are more interested in something they think is related directly to finding a job like doing an MBA.”
The failure to learn several foreign languages also lies in past experiences, learning languages in high school.
“In secondary school, we all had to learn French,” Polina told the Sunday Mail, “but we didn’t learn much because there was a lot of noise in the class and the teacher and the students were not motivated.”
Contrary to other European countries the level of French proficiency the students achieve is basic, even after four years. This should come as no surprise, as the level of English is also not at the ‘proficient’ level despite the fact that nearly all students have private lessons.
As an English language teacher at the University of Cyprus put it “we all know that no student of a lyceum would pass the English exams if they didn’t have private lessons.”
“Few students say they speak anything except English when they come to the university,” German lecturer Birgit Ziartidou said. “Even at the university there is not enough language learning. In most programmes there are only two semesters for a language. It’s not enough to learn more than the very basics.”
But the university fares well in comparison to schools where modern technology is often lacking and the classes are smaller.
“It is more like private lessons we had in the afternoons; it’s more motivating than at school,” Katerina said. “German lessons also include learning about the culture.”
That may be the best way to bring students close to a language, such as introducing students to
complicated but very necessary words when you want to get along in Germany, such as ordering Schwarzwaelder Kirschtorte, a popular cake, or pronouncing Bundeskanzlerin – that’s Angela Merkel’s job.
And if you really want to learn about the culture of a country, it definitely helps to know the ‘code’, as academic John McWhorter pointed out.
This is helpful for those who travel abroad as well as those who come into contact with tourists and residents from other countries.
“Apart from learning an extra language for employment or further studies, it is also healthy as it improves your ability to multitask and reduces chances of developing Alzheimer’s,” McWhorter added.
So maybe the secondary schools should think again. They currently force all pupils to learn English and French until the first class of the lyceum. Only then can they choose another language, but that’s only for two years. There is no language requirement in the new lyceum curricula, though, and many students choose other electives instead of languages. At most schools some languages are not even offered. German Federal Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel.
“At my son’s school they didn’t offer German or Russian,” Susan Georgiou a mother of two sons who attended public schools in Nicosia said. “The choice was Italian, Spanish or French. Even if they are offered, there have to be at least ten students interested.”
And what can the higher education institutions do to rectify the situation? They are trying. Some 17,000 students have attended the University of Cyprus’ language courses which have been offered for 13 years. It offers courses in eight foreign languages, the five main EU languages: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish as well as Turkish, Russian and Chinese.
But the problem here is again that most departments have no language requirement and, apart from English, classes are not at a high level.
“The languages we offer at the language centre, especially when also taught at higher levels would offer many opportunities such as attending Erasmus exchanges, studying for free in Germany and finding a job abroad,” Ziartidou said. “Only in their second year at university or later, do many students realise that languages matter for their future.”