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Language abilities of the young generation

Ability of the Czech society members to speak foreign languages is quite an important factor influencing the Czech society participation in the processes of globalisation and the course of integration of the Czech society into European structures (either formal or informal ones). If we are going to be interested in conditions and prerequisites of our integration into Europe, it is necessary to be especially interested in the language potential of the Czech population, and specifically the language potential of the young Czech generation. We are interested in the current situation, but above all, in the development trends of learning and acquiring foreign languages.

Ability to speak foreign languages has been surveyed by means of the standardised dialogue (discussion). This dialogue has been carried out within a representative group of 1900 respondents. An individual respondent has assessed his or her abilities to speak foreign languages using a scale with 6 levels. Each level has been described verbally.

Can you speak foreign languages and what is your level of mastery of the languages? For each language please circle the most appropriate code describing your ability to speak the given language.

  1. partial ability (able to understand a simple text using a dictionary)
  2. low ability (able to understand simple dialogues and texts)
  3. good ability (ability to follow discussion and negotiations, to phone, to read materials connected with work tasks, to write simple letters, to read literature)
  4. very good ability (fluent in making dialogues, ability to compose presentations, messages and reports on my own, active participation in discussion and negotiations)
  5. excellent ability (equal to the mother tongue)
  6. I do not know

Within the Czech society, three major foreign languages (English, German and Russian) are spoken more commonly than French, Spanish and other foreign languages. The ability to speak the latter has been observed to be rather marginal.

The frequency of how individuals assessed their levels of their language abilities has been transformed into an index for each language and each age group. Each index ranges from 1 to 5. The higher the index is the better the ability to speak a given foreign language is. The indexes for individual age groups and languages have been used to make a chart showing the ability to speak languages in relation to age.

Ability to speak foreign languages in relation to age
Ability to speak foreign languages in relation to age

The courses of the curves show that even such phenomena as a language and ability to speak a language are strongly influenced by events in social and political life. The trends of abilities to speak English and Russian are more or less contrary. The ability to speak English is rising with younger age groups of the Czech society, but on the contrary, the ability to speak Russian is falling in these age groups. We can even see the impact of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia on the course of the curve. The ability to speak Russian was culminating in the Czech society around the year 1968. After August 1968, the act of occupation influenced one entire generation, their attitude towards learning Russian language and their ability to speak it. In 1980s, however, this influence already lost its power and the ability to speak Russian was getting improved.

If we consider the dominant foreign language, the Czech society is "split" into two major age groups: people who are approximately up to 45 years old speak predominantly English, people over 45 years old speak predominantly Russian.

The ability to speak German is better with the oldest generation that lived in the wartime Czech Protectorate State. The poorest ability to speak German is with the generation that attended schools immediately after WW II. Since mid-1950s onwards, the ability to speak German has been improving continuously, and the present-day young generation can speak German considerably better than Russian. German is, after English, the second foreign language of the Czech population. The orientation of the Czech society to two dominant foreign languages has its firm logic. English is the global language of Internet and information technologies; German is the language of our most dominant neighbour with which the economic, political and cultural ties are going to get closer and closer.

The ability to speak English is at present culminating with the age group of fresh university graduates, and is gradually decreasing up to the age group of the retired. The course of the curve of ability to speak English expresses current situation, i.e. the fact when there was an explosion of interest in learning English 11 years ago. It can be expected the ability to speak English will be extended beyond the age group of fresh university graduates in the future. The above chart has showed the ability to speak English using a synthetic indicator - the index. The chart bellow shows the ability to speak English divided into individual levels of mastery according to the given 6-level scale.

The highest ability, indicated by levels 4 and 5, is the most frequent with the age group of 24-30 years. It is obvious the university studies are not sufficient to enable a person to reach the highest language ability. There are further forms of language study necessary to develop this base knowledge into perfection. The language ability of level 5 is almost missing in the age groups above 45 years. The language abilities of level 2 and 3 (the most frequent ones in the society taken as a whole) are reduced dramatically within older age groups. This middle level is the most frequent within the middle-age group.

Level of English in relation to age
Level of English in relation to age

What are the forms of learning English used by the Czechs and what is the efficiency of these forms? We tried to get answers to these questions using a closed question with multiple-answer options.

Have you ever been learning English? If so, where were you learning it and what forms of learning were you using? Circle all options applicable for you.

  1. a primary school language curriculum
  2. a secondary school language curriculum
  3. a language course as a compulsory part of university studies
  4. a short-term language course (up to 6 months)
  5. a long-term language course (one year or longer)
  6. a TV language course
  7. a radio language course
  8. a language course abroad
  9. a stay in an English-speaking country
  10. a language course organised by an employer
  11. a multimedia computer language-teaching programme (e.g. Langmaster)
  12. an Internet course
  13. a correspondence course

The following chart shows what forms of language learning were used by the young generation aged between 15-30 years. The school curriculum learning is of the main importance here. An important fact is that 11% of young generation members improved their language abilities using a stay in an English-speaking country. The same share of young people is using Internet and computer-assisted language learning.

Forms of learning English used by young generation (aged between 15 -30 years)
Forms of learning English used by young generation (aged between 15 -30 years)

We calculated a language ability index for individual forms of language learning. The highest level of language abilities can be seen with young people who improved their language by a stay abroad and by a language course abroad. Next, Internet, university courses and computer-assisted learning follow.

Efficiency of English-learning forms
Efficiency of English-learning forms

When assessing the importance of individual English-learning forms, we have to take into consideration three levels:

  1. Prevalence of the learning form in the young generation, i.e. what share of young people comes into contact with this form. In this sense, the most important form of learning English is the school language curriculum (primary, secondary or university courses).
  2. The overall efficiency of the language learning form. Here, the best forms are stays abroad and courses abroad.11% of young people improved their language ability during a stay in a foreign country. At the same time, 65% of persons with the highest level of language mastery (level 5) improved their ability during a stay abroad. 2% of young people took a language course abroad - they constitute 23% of persons with the highest level of language mastery (level 5).
  3. The highest reached level of language mastery.

If we take the above aspects into consideration, then we can maintain that the most important mass language learning form is the secondary school language learning. Then, the most effective language learning form is a stay abroad. Next, the best form to reach the highest level of language mastery is a language course abroad. A remarkably dynamic advance of the information technology use can be seen at all three levels. Internet and multimedia technologies are getting common forms of English learning, along with "classic" methods of language learning. As the survey has showed, the importance of IT and Internet cannot be omitted nowadays, and their importance is going to increase further in the future.

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