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In Defence of Language Learning

In Defence of Language Learning featured image

In School Assembly, boys have heard me speak on several occasions about how I am a dedicated Francophile. Most recently, the context was the fire that gutted Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the television coverage of which brought me to tears in my kitchen. Each year when we come to discuss the family summer holiday, my wife gears up for a battle, knowing that my starting point will be to suggest a new region of what I refer to as ‘God’s own country’. I love not only the countryside, but also the culture, the cuisine, the mentality of its people and, of course, its language. In some respects I am never happier than when speaking French, and it is such a pleasure that I can continue teaching it to Year 7 boys at the Grammar School, especially as, for many, it is their first experience of the language. Unfortunately, language learning is rather undervalued in this country, and a number of press articles recently have focused on how the number of students sitting GCSEs and A Levels in Modern Languages has decreased. Indeed, The Guardian has termed this the national ‘threat’ to Modern Languages teaching. At a moment when the United Kingdom is preparing to go it alone, is it important to be able to speak another language?

When I was a child, I got the idea from my initial schooling that there was a country called England, where everyone spoke English, a country called Germany where everybody spoke German, and so on. I imagined that nationhood was defined by a commonality of language. Quite often in our modern political discourse, this childlike view rises to the surface; the idea being that there is a unifying culture and language behind each nation. Some long to return to a nebulous point in our history of peak Englishness. The reality is that multiculturalism and multilingualism are the norm around the globe. Indeed, they have always been so. History is marked by the movement of peoples, the fluidity of national boundaries and the mixing of cultures. From my interest in linguistics, I am aware, for example, that the English language is an amalgam and development of the Latin of our Roman invaders, the Norse of the Vikings, the ancient German of the Saxons, the French of our Norman conquerors in 1066, and the Celtic languages of our geographical fringes. In recent centuries we have added to English by borrowing from the languages of the British Empire, notably from the Indic languages.

Despite the multilingualism inherent in the history of the British Isles, I don’t think that there can be any doubt that the British people have some of the least impressive language skills in the world. The status of English as the international language of commerce has made monolingualism the norm. In Europe, educated people speak English (and often other languages) whatever their field of expertise. Yet my university peer group, highly educated as they are, operating as QCs, hospital consultants and captains of industry, have no language skills to speak of. Indeed, it is acceptable to boast that ‘I never got on with languages at school’, in a way that it would never be socially acceptable to boast about being illiterate or innumerate.

Yet, bilingualism among Grammar School pupils is actually extremely common. There are dozens of boys at school for whom English is a second language. Their parents came to the UK to work and have stayed. Having spent the whole of their education here, one would never know that they are not native speakers. There are also several boys who have one parent from another country, who have been brought up bilingually. Even if they can’t necessarily write their second language, they are orally fluent. Finally, countless boys speak a community language that has been passed down from parents or grandparents. Again, they may not be able to write it, having not learned the alphabet, but there are functionally bilingual. It is all about motivation. The need to communicate with relatives gives a purpose to speak a second language. If you are a European whose language is spoken by only 5 million people, you understand from an early age that learning English is a requirement if you want to have a well-paid job. My desire to speak French came courtesy of the relationship established between my mother and the penfriend she had met aged 14. We spent happy camping holidays together with this French family during my childhood, and the need to communicate gave me a reason to persevere with the language.

Being brought up bilingual is the ‘easy’ option. If one parent speaks the ‘foreign’ language and the other English, a young child learns both with equal fluency without consciously realising it. For most of us, however, acquiring a second language as a school from secondary school is hard work. Becoming fluent is a slow, gradual progression, requiring tenacity and patience. Yet, in our typical curriculum, there are other ‘hard’ subjects. Mathematics is hard, but our educational system is clear that it is important for future achievement in science and other fields, and teachers and parents both understand that perseverance is required. We don’t quite have the same approach to modern languages. Even educated people are tempted to say ‘he’s got a blind spot for languages so I don’t think it’s worth him continuing (and I think that other curriculum areas are more important).’

The recent press coverage of the threats to modern languages in our schools cited the reduction in the number of students choosing the subject at A Level. When I took A Level French in 1991, I was one of 26,000 candidates. In 2018, this figure had fallen nationally to 8.713, and one must remember that many more students these days are sitting A Level in the first place. This makes me sad, because I feel that my knowledge of other languages has made me a much more rounded individual. An interest in language helps us to understand identity – to empathise with others from different cultures. When I speak French, I think and perceive the world differently. I am sure that Grammar School boys who are bilingual would agree. When they speak their ‘other’ language, they adopt a different persona and this provides them with a more rounded world view. In an era when nationalism is gaining ground, I am convinced that monolingualism contributes to isolation and a difficulty in understanding the perspective of others.

Some cite the importance of learning a foreign language in terms of employability: one’s skills might help you to do business with another country. For me, persevering with a second language insulates you against insularity. Learners gain intellectual flexibility and inter-cultural sensitivity from switching between codes. It is a crying shame that fluency in another language seems, from the A Level statistics, to be becoming the preserve of an elite. Yes, Loughborough Grammar School makes every boy study a language to GCSE level, but this should only be the start, as an educated young man should consider genuine fluency in a foreign language to be part of his portfolio of skills.

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