Why Learn a Language? And Which One?

At NHEHS, where modern languages are a thriving part of the curriculum, girls are taught a carousel of different languages in Year 7, to help them decide which two out of four languages (French, Mandarin, German, Spanish) to take into Year 8, then ultimately continue with to GCSE level or beyond. 

But, why should we learn languages at all? And if we should, should we learn just one? And which one?

Sakeena Sanders, Year 10 Journalist Leader and keen linguist, gives her opinion:

For decades, French has been the most popular language to take in school in the UK, due to our physical proximity and close trading relationship, with many adults being able to speak ‘schoolboy French’. However, since 2002 the number of GCSE French exams sat in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has fallen by a massive 63%, according to the BBC. Furthermore, the number of students taking any GCSE language course has dropped by 40% in England, since 2013, with over 25% fewer students taking German and almost 10% fewer students taking Urdu, also reported by the BBC.

On the other hand, since 2013, the number of Spanish GCSEs being sat in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has risen by over 10%, as well as Chinese, which has risen by 30%; other modern foreign languages which have gone against the trend, increasing their numbers since 2013 include: Portuguese, Polish, Arabic, Russian, Turkish and Italian [BBC]. However, it is important to note that these languages began with far fewer students than more established languages like German and French.8

This huge gap in language skills has even led to businesses expressing their concern, with the chief UK policy director of the business group CBI saying, ‘The decline in language learning in schools must be reversed, or else the UK will be less competitive globally and young people less prepared for the modern world’. This raises the question of whether Britain should adopt a similar approach to Sweden, where they have made English compulsory for all children, in an attempt to create a bilingual country.

Should the UK government implement a similar approach, choosing one modern foreign language, which everyone must learn to a high standard?

Whilst this would be extremely beneficial in ensuring that the UK remains globally competitive, the question of which language should be chosen then arises. Perhaps it should be French or German as they are so geographically close to us and we have a strong trading relationship, or maybe it should be Spanish, with its 389 million native speakers, or even Chinese with its 1.39 billion native speakers, according to the Washington Post? These are the more obvious choices, however, should Urdu or Hindi be made mandatory, with a combined 588 million native speakers [The Washington Post]?

There are many benefits of learning a modern foreign language, including boosting your cultural awareness and ability to work with people from around the world. In addition, as ‘employer demand for French, German and Spanish skills has significantly increased over the last few years,’ (Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director for business group CBI) you will become more attractive to prospective employers!

In Wales, it is compulsory for students to study Welsh until the age of 16, either as a first (for those already fluent) or a second language. Therefore, schools in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland could consider basing their teaching of an intensive language on this!

In my view, the Swedish approach of teaching only one language but to an extremely high standard, hopefully fluency, should be adopted by all schools in the UK! This would ensure that students do not just learn a small amount of a couple of languages, which they may be able to teach themselves as an adult, perhaps with a language app like Duolingo, anyway.

Furthermore, Britain would continue to produce globally competitive, culturally aware employees who are able to work abroad. However, selecting which language should be intensively taught would be difficult, perhaps with the government, local councils, or individual schools themselves deciding. Of course, learning one language well enough to be fluent should never deter students from learning other languages on top of this!


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