'Let's ensure we offer engaging lessons to encourage language learning and appreciation of other cultures'
Jane Gandee, head of St Swithun’s School in Winchester, argues that learning languages is essential and schools should not be deterred from encouraging their uptake.
I read another disappointing report about the state of language learning in the UK (BBC Online: Language learning: German and French drop by half in UK schools). I suspect that is, at least in part, an unintended consequence of the introduction of league tables all those years ago.
Although exam regulators have done some work to compare the relative difficulty of different subjects and are said to have eased the awarding of grades at A-level, there is still significant anecdotal evidence that it is more difficult to achieve a top grade in modern languages than in many other subjects. That appears to dissuade some schools from encouraging students to choose languages. And students who know that university offers will depend on high grades often avoid subjects which are perceived as harder.
One might argue that doesn’t matter. One might claim that ‘everyone speaks English anyway’. However, this is both untrue and ignores the wider advantages of language learning. Learning languages is certainly about developing fluency and the ability to communicate in another tongue, but it is also about appreciating that although we might live in a different country speaking a different language, we are all human. As Shylock said in The Merchant of Venice: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"
For young people to appreciate that we have more in common with the Chinese, the Peruvians or the Germans than there are differences is essential if we are to create a more harmonious world. It is fear of the unknown that leads to conflict, envy and fear. Anything that we can do to mitigate these emotions should be encouraged. Whether young people have the chance to take part in a study visit or an exchange, or whether they just learn about another culture in the classroom it all helps to demystify other nationalities.
It has long been said that learning languages is hard, and this has been given as a reason to make their study optional. I cannot think of a better reason to persevere. Sure, learning verb endings or vocabulary off by heart requires work, but so do many things. If we encourage young people only to do what is easy, we train them for a life of underachievement.
I understand that for young people unlikely to travel abroad, it could be said that there is no point in learning a foreign language, but that is to set a culture of low expectations. It has never been easier to access authentic languages online whether through news, film, music or simply sharing opinions and ideas with others. There are many extremely effective apps to help learners through the slog of vocabulary or grammar and a wealth of resources to help you practise your new language.
So, what to do to provide young people with a competitive advantage? They are already skilled users of English – let’s ensure that they all have at least one other language. Firstly, let’s be sure to celebrate languages they already speak at home. Secondly, it is surely incumbent upon government to make the study of languages compulsory at KS4 or to remove them from league tables or to do whatever it takes to ensure that schools are not penalised in any bizarre way for encouraging their uptake. Finally, let’s ensure we offer engaging lessons that use all available resources to encourage language learning and appreciation of other cultures.