Learning a Foreign Language

by NDFAuthors

  • Jul 21, 2014

A promising step forward is happening in British schools from September: a new National Curriculum comes into force which will try to raise the profile of languages in schools.

In September a new National Curriculum comes into force in the United Kingdom which will try, among other things, to raise the profile of languages in schools. For a country not famed for our linguistic competence this has to be a promising step. Without going into the logistic complications of how this might work with no government commitment to funding and a lack of languages proficiency or training amongst teachers, this should combat our country’s reputation in communicating in a language other than English. In all likelihood this language provision is going to continue to follow the historical language choices of French and Spanish with maybe some German and Italian with the odd school which welcomes Mandarin Chinese into the fold. I understand and support the reasons for schools choosing to offer discrete lessons in these subjects and if we were to look at the most influential languages for British businesses, German comes top of the list[1] with the traditional European languages still considered important.

What concerns me however is that the rich and varied linguistic abilities reflected in society are not considered equal to a GCSE in French or Spanish. As a nation we do not embrace the linguistic dexterity coming from 1 in 6 British pupils who speak a language other than English at home. Their skills are instead seen as a ‘learning need’ as schools try to bring them up to speed in English without celebrating the significant achievement of their bilingualism or even trilingualism. Not only does this affect the self esteem of pupils and their families but it has wider economic consequences too. Polish whilst being the fifth most useful language to businesses in the UK[2] is relegated to the status of a ‘community language’. I could not tell you of a single school which actually teaches Polish but bemoans the admitted difficulty of having a child who does not speak English in their class. It seems that all the benefits we attribute to language learning do not apply to the Turkish or Guajarati speaker and yet we should recognise that the problem solving and communication abilities of bilingual children are usually higher than monolingual children. It is also well documented that children acquire a new language with more ease the more they have developed their communication and language abilities in their native tongue.


Learning a foreign language helps children to achieve more

Parents should be supported in maintaining and improving their child’s native tongue as this is the language which they are likely to be most proficient in and able to provide quality and consistent support. With one in six children in English primary schools speaking languages other than English at home[3], surely we should be trying to harness this amazing resource to provide opportunities for children. As the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, Leszek Borysiewicz says:

“These are real languages: living languages that give people a huge insight into culture and give the children who can speak them additional opportunities.”[4] It cannot be that the only languages to have value are the ones taught in schools and mastered by those progressing to the upper echelons of higher education.

Isn’t that what education is about – enabling every child to achieve the maximum potential? What I’d love to see is an emphasis that this is an added value that that child has, a talent, and we should aspire to allow other children who may be monolingual to strive to become as bilingual as they possibly can be.”[5]

Global demand for languages


This then comes down to policy makers, businesses and communities themselves to ensure that these language and cultural skills are utilised both in and outside the education system. Whilst school curriculums are notoriously busy already and can’t offer discrete teaching in an array of languages, they could include a wider variety of languages in creative ways. Some sport or music could be taught through another language and whilst teachers can’t be expected to be able to teach multiple languages, they should be open to the idea of languages in their classroom either through specialists, external providers or parents.

Languages need to be seen as both useful and desirable in order for them to have value in society. Despite the global demand which is crying out for more people with language proficiency, too many are simply covering their ears to this fact because they themselves feel uncomfortable with languages. Mother tongues should be maintained, sustained and celebrated rather than replaced with English as a language of convenience.

Additionally languages should not be the preserve of the lucky few who are brought up from birth with another language. Whilst fluency is a wonderful ideal, some functional basics in another language as well as the intercultural understanding that this can bring will take you a long way.