Comment writer Charlotte Gill raises the importance of language learning beyond university
Telling people you study Modern Languages usually elicits one of two responses: either ‘I was always so rubbish at languages at school’ or ‘I wish I had kept up a language.’ When the school syllabus is uninspiring, it’s unsurprising. If I had not known in Year 9 that I wanted to speak French and German, I wonder what would have kept me committed. This is not a slight on teachers, who themselves likely wish for change. Who could envy helping pupils learn endless paragraphs filled with ‘Ich habe Fußball gespielt’ and ‘Je suis allée en Espagne’ to trot out in the end of term speaking exams? Assessment hoop-jumping leaves little room for proper understanding.
Languages are considered ‘high risk’ choices: the four key areas are demanding and language requires constant maintenance, so if you have no interest or not enough time, it is easy to fall behind. The highly artificial topics also act as a demotivator; I can’t say I ever told someone about my morning routine on my year abroad. It is hard to feel confident at GCSE – a crucial time for generating interest – while reciting words without understanding what they signify.
This is not language learning, this is a memory game which extinguishes any fascination the foreign countries may hold. Before A-Level, there is neither the time nor the resources to allow for lessons which show what you can do with languages and, quite literally, where they can take you. It shouldn’t have to be this way. A language emanates from a people, from their history, and this needs to be communicated. Arguably, engaging pupils in the culture is more valuable than having them learn verb conjugations, because this sparks interest and offers a real-life application to serve as motivation.
It is not all doom and gloom, though — but we first must change the way we approach foreign languages in the UK to help teachers, and to foster an appetite for language learning and an acknowledgement of its value. It is crucial that the education system demonstrates what an excellent skill it is, and the opportunities language learning affords us. English is often the lingua franca, but I would not have been able to live and work abroad in the manner I did without being able to speak French and German well. The experience of being immersed in another culture offers enormous scope for personal progress. You become resourceful, resilient, adaptable, open-minded, facing new situations and people on a daily basis.
To get sentimental about it, if eyes are the window to the soul, then languages are the window to another culture. I had discussions with many people about their backgrounds and beliefs, gaining insight and broadening my own perspective. Conversing in their native language allowed them to fully communicate their ideas, so nothing was lost in translation. If you like, multi-linguists are provided with ‘backstage access’, something which is frustratingly overlooked when claiming that ‘everyone speaks English, anyway.’
Even in a university setting, language students do not, thankfully, spend all of their time revising past participles and the subjunctive because cultural modules cover foreign literature, linguistics, history, politics, and incorporate discussion of myriad sociological and ecological issues throughout the course. It is like buy one, get a load free, which really is value for money if you want to go there.
Perhaps now more than ever, knowledge of a foreign language is key. It is impossible to say what will happen internationally in the future if countries become more isolationist and nationalist populism intensifies, and head-scratchingly difficult to picture even the near future concerning Brexit. If we become politically and legally distanced, especially from the EU, then language is a means of remaining engaged. This is important for enriching cultural interaction, and even for maintaining ties in order to tackle border-crossing issues such as international security, environmental damage and digital development. And as fast as technology is advancing, I don’t believe it can yet capture the nuance and complexity, nor replace the human element, of using and understanding another language.
The discussion of foreign languages deserves more airtime than it gets. We should and we must encourage language learning by making it interesting and showcasing its abounding potential and global importance. Failing to do so will present a far greater loss than many realise.