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Language learning – why bother when you can speak English?

Gary Lineker, famous footballer and pundit, is one of many people bemoaning the decline of language learning in this country. As someone who learnt Spanish while playing for Barcelona, Lineker believes language learning is a critical part of a young person’s education:

“There’s an attitude abroad and sometimes it’s understandable that we’re a bit pompous or arrogant and we think everyone should speak English. I don’t think it really does us any favours in terms of how people see us,” he said. “There is no question in my mind when you speak someone else’s language, certainly in their country, they’re normally pretty appreciative of the fact.”

Perception is everything and there is a measure of truth in Lineker’s observation. Yet I believe it is not so much arrogance which is the barrier to language learning but rather the reality of English being the lingua franca of our times. Indeed, on language exchange programmes our students often have to be persistent in speaking the language of their partners who themselves desperately want to take every opportunity to speak English.

So how do we persuade young people to learn a language when all the world appears intent on speaking English? Gary Lineker commendably focuses on the cultural dimension. To interact with people in their language enables the speaker truly to understand cultural signifiers where there invariably will be nuances of meaning. Speaking English is inevitably a barrier to this. English allows communication but does not necessarily facilitate understanding and in a world where cultures clash and misunderstanding is rampant understanding people has never been more important.

Another driver has to be the benefits of speaking another language in the global workforce. This is clearly illustrated by the careers of our alumni. As part of the European Day of Languages we contacted alumni who were linguists to ask whether they would be prepared to share their experience. So many stories revealed how languages opened up opportunities in ways conventional careers guidance could not anticipate.

Yet ultimately my view is that these very grown up reasons for studying languages don’t cut much ice with young people. They speak English so why work hard at another language? As the Head of Modern Languages observed in assembly, learning a language requires effort and then there are all those grammatical exceptions. Mark Twain, a giant of American literature, was happy to share his experience of learning German:

“When a German gets his hands on an adjective, he declines it, and keeps on declining it until the common sense is all declined out of it.”

Which is why a school needs to think differently about language learning. In addition to offering a menu comprising seven modern foreign languages, Year 7 students study linguistics and in Year 8 we have introduced a new Global Outlook course. The objective of these non-examined programmes is to encourage students to engage culturally with the wider world in creative ways. One topic for Year 8 is based on the concept of “globish”, and other activities include deciphering runes and creating runic sentences.

In this way we aim to encourage a genuine interest in the world providing a context for why language learning matters. It is important that everyone engages with languages and not just the naturally gifted linguists. With technology shrinking our world, the imperative for language learning is more important than ever. We may be globally connected through a device, yet we are still interacting with human beings. And it is all about understanding and not just communicating.