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King's Ely: Putting languages at the core

Stop treating learning languages as an 'intellectual pursuit' rather than the acquisition of a useful skill, says the school's Esmeralda Salgado

Posted by Julian Owen | January 02, 2018 | Teaching

As someone who came to the UK from Spain 17 years ago to work as a school teacher, it saddens me that the number of British students taking languages has steadily declined over that period. I am fortunate to have worked in schools in both the state and private sector where the learning of languages is considered prestigious by both the senior leadership team and parents. But for the country as a whole the outlook is less positive with the number of entries for modern foreign languages (MFL) continuing to fall.  

In March 2019, when Britain leaves the EU, many aspects of life that we have taken for granted for over 40 years will have to be re-negotiated with our European neighbours. We will no longer have a seat at the ‘top table’ as a key member of the EU; not only will we be going it alone economically, but also – crucially – linguistically. Make no mistake, not knowing how to speak another language will have a direct impact on our prosperity. In the new dynamic, trade talks may not necessarily be carried out in the medium of English. We are going to need people who can talk with their European counterparts in their own tongue, yet with an estimated three-quarters of UK adults unable to speak another of the world’s major languages well enough to hold a conversation there is an obvious discrepancy. It is almost as if in the UK learning languages is considered an intellectual pursuit rather than a useful skill. It will not be a question of just talking that bit louder or gesticulating more animatedly; you buy in your own language and you sell in your customer’s, as the saying goes. 

At the same time as the country is managing the changes wrought by Brexit, schools are also facing a major MFL recruitment crisis with a sharp decline in the number of students taking foreign language A-levels and going on to study the subject at university. Meanwhile, it is estimated nearly 3,500 extra language teachers are needed to meet the government’s demand that modern foreign languages are included in the English Baccalaureate. The answer, I believe, is a change of approach to language learning. Since 2014 children aged seven to 11 are expected to study one foreign language for one hour per week which is a step forward. But I would argue that it is not enough. My experience of learning languages back in my home country placed the acquisition of another tongue to be at the core of a student’s learning journey from primary school. I believe we must start teaching languages as ‘core subjects’ at a young age in the same way as we do maths, science and English. It would make the leap to taking a GCSE in a language subject much less onerous and make the subject feel less alien to students. In addition, we must break the common misconception about language learning and make the experience a relevant one with lots of ‘fun’ elements added to it, including project work and links with partner schools on the continent. 

For some people learning a modern foreign language can be tough, but it is one of the most rewarding things you can do. Studies by Harvard University show that learning additional languages increases critical thinking skills, creativity and flexibility of the mind in young children. With Brexit on the horizon employers are desperate to recruit speakers of foreign languages. We are all travelling more. The ability to speak another language provides a means of entry into other cultures, as well as job opportunities. Now is the time to put languages at the top of the education agenda. 

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