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The importance of learning languages

St Benedict’s Headmaster, Andrew Johnson makes the case for studying languages.

Brexit is changing the UK’s relationships with EU countries and with the rest of the world. The British Council, in November 2017, identified five priority languages for the UK’s future prosperity, security and influence in the world. These are Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German, with Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese and Russian following some way behind.

Is the UK equipped to meet the supply and demand for language competence in the future?

There are three main reasons why it is a good idea to learn languages, with or without Brexit. Firstly, and most obviously, it can develop our ability to communicate – beyond the superficial and in a meaningful way – with people from another country. This in turn enhances our understanding and appreciation of our own language – its origins, grammar and usage, both formal and informal.

Secondly, speaking a language offers us a passport to understanding another culture, not just by communicating with people directly but through reading the literature which is read and studied by native speakers of that language - whether it’s Flaubert’s Madame Bovary,  Gabriel García Márquez’ Cien años de soledad or Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch der alten Dame.

Thirdly, learning a language helps us to understand how other people think, which informs not only our view of ourselves but crucially how we relate to them.

And yet the number of students taking French and German A-level has fallen by a third in just a decade. Applications to read Modern Languages at university have declined at a corresponding rate.  Lack of language skills often prevents young people from taking up opportunities to gain international experience. And UK employers and business leaders report increasing concern with graduates’ lack of international cultural awareness.  

Why is this, and what should we be doing to reverse the trend?

Modern Languages have been a casualty of curriculum reform in the past. The introduction of GCSE from 1988 onwards saw a gradual watering-down of grammatical content and intellectual challenge in the way these subjects were taught and assessed. This accelerated with the advent of curriculum 2000 (AS and A2), when the requirement to study literature as part of the A level course was removed: a retrograde step, resulting in a narrowing of focus towards merely the acquisition of a communicative skill and neglecting an essential strand of language learning – knowledge of the country’s culture, literature and history.

Consequently, the study of languages became rather dull for some, lacking the challenge of subjects requiring deeper thought and analysis, such as English or History. Removing the difficult in order to increase take-up of language learning had the opposite effect; students often felt disenchanted, demotivated and limited in how far they could take their knowledge as a result of formulaic learning and controlled assessment. In particular, teaching which slavishly adhered to the limited requirements of GCSE did not adequately prepare young people for more advanced, in-depth study of a foreign language and culture. And yet it remains true that, when a student understands how the different components of the language fit together, when a fascination develops for the culture of the foreign language, studying languages can be hugely rewarding.

We know children learn best when they’re stimulated and challenged – when they are allowed time and space to learn, rather than being forced to concentrate only on coursework and controlled assessment. Thankfully, changes to GCSE language courses mean that a better foundation for learning a language is now provided, with a greater emphasis on grammar. The new style A-level also represents an improvement, with a return to greater challenge, more grammatical content and a reintroduction of the intellectual discipline of prose translation, both into, and from, the foreign language. At last, this may be a welcome rebalancing of the communication element, which certainly must be there, with academic rigour.

Good languages departments have always sought to widen the scope of pupils’ language learning, whatever the course content dictates. There is no substitute for vibrant teaching which provides a deeper understanding, more intellectual challenge and cultural insight.

What about the exchange visit? While in many schools across the country the exchange is all but dead, the vast majority of independent schools encourage their pupils to spend some time immersed in the language by staying in the country as part of a study visit or exchange. It is this sort of experience which can often spark a life-long interest in a particular language and culture, because it brings that language to life.

One of the great advantages enjoyed by day schools in London is the linguistic and cultural diversity of the pupil demographic. How better to learn Spanish, French, German or Mandarin, than to be able to communicate with a native speaker of that language, who happens to be a pupil at the same school? And appropriate use of technology in many Modern Languages classrooms can also help bring language learning to life – access to live TV or film can be a real motivator for pupils, and interactive programmes are also a great help for practice in speaking the language and in learning vocabulary.

Studying a language is about a meaningful engagement with others, and appreciating cultural differences.  While English now exerts huge influence in many countries, seen in extensive borrowing of vocabulary, for example, major national and regional languages will always reflect and define the character of those nations. Therefore, in order really to reach and to understand a foreign culture and identity, an understanding of that language remains indispensable; our own culture only becomes impoverished if we become hubristic enough to assume we have attained some sort of linguistic hegemony.

Our shortfall in Modern Languages students has to be addressed if we are to remain fully and meaningfully engaged with the rest of the world. Let us hope we may now see something of a renaissance!


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