Languages – why ever not? 

‘As a nation we are poor at languages’. How often have we heard that and for how long?  We deplore it and want to be better but it seems that despite our good intentions and many initiatives we make little or no progress.   Are we lazy because generally other nations speak our language or simply poor at teaching languages or even genetically non linguists? Surely none of these. 

It has long been a hobby horse of mine that we should improve and indeed it is an embarrassment to me that I am no role model here.   

We see sports stars being interviewed on TV and wherever they hail from they make a good stab at answering in English whereas we …   I am full of admiration for Andy Murray for example.  He is a super star but I cringed when he was interviewed after the French Open earlier this year and he could utter not one word of French,  no not even ‘Merci’ while Novak  Djokovic spoke happily in French and English neither of course his native tongue.  

This week we reached our nadir with reports that A Level results showed the number of pupils taking languages at a record low. This included Spanish, Madarin and Russian,  never mind French and German which have been in long term decline.  We can hope GCSE results this week will be more positive as a result of languages being a core subject in the Ebacc.  However it is clear that even if there is a rising trend it is not feeding through to A level and beyond.  

Our lack of language proficiency is not for want of trying,  we have schools that teach some or even all of their curriculum through a modern foreign language.  Primary schools now all teach at least one foreign language.  It is to be hoped that these initiatives are just taking time to bear fruit.  I sometimes think it is the multiplicity of languages that confuses us!  If a primary school teaches Spanish and then feeds into the secondary school focusing on Spanish,  progress seems to get lost.  Apparently there is not a most useful language for us to focus upon sadly.  It used to be German for business,  then Spanish because it is spoken widely across the world and of course French because they are nearby.  Secondary schools frequently offer a carousel in Year 7 to give a taster before pupils specialise but this rarely delivers large classes when choices are made.  I gather that whatever language one learns is beneficial because it stretches our brains in a different way to other disciplines.  For this reason alone we should redouble our efforts.  This is also probably why those good at one language seem to learn others more easily.  

The answer must be  to learn languages young.  Look at youngsters who have bilingual parents who can swop bewtween languages with confidence.  Immersion has got to help so school exchanges should be encouraged.  Language teachers should be made especially welcome in our schools.  Latin provides a basis for understanding language and grammar and should not be discarded as ‘dead’.  Expectation that we can and will show respect to our neighbours across the world and learn to converse with them in their mother tongue as they do with us should be a given.   

Let us not lose heart.  Hopefully we will see  a rise  in the number of pupils taking GCSE languages this week.  I shall watch with interest and even enrol in a course myself.  Never too late but would have been better early!!! 


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