Why students should learn a foreign language

By Mrs Laura Robertson, Head of Felsted MFL  

“The decision to learn a foreign language is to me an act of friendship. It is indeed a holding out of the hand. It’s not just a route to negotiation. It’s also to get to know you better, to draw closer to you and your culture, your social manners and your way of thinking.” 
John le Carré, from an article in The Guardian entitled “Why we should learn German". Read the full article here.

This week, language learning has once again made the front pages. On top of declining student numbers, the difficulty in recruiting suitably qualified teachers and the ever growing red tape around school trips, it has now been reported that students are finding foreign language lessons so stressful that they are being signed off by their GP.  

At the same time, Schools’ Minster Nik Gibb has set a target of getting 75% of all students to take a foreign language GCSE by 2022 in a bid to address the fact that it is no longer acceptable “for the UK to languish at the bottom of international league tables of the ability to speak foreign languages”. State schools are going to be assessed by Ofsted and performance league tables on the proportion of students taking a GCSE in a foreign language, so if there was ever a time to get this right, it would be now. 

How dangerous it would be to channel more and more of our young people through a programme of study which causes them extreme anxiety and negates the very skills it sets out to achieve: confidence, resilience, ambition and the ability to build relationships.

Steps are being taken to address the issues around the recognised severe grading of MFL at GCSE and more and more companies and newspapers are speaking out in favour of the many benefits of language learning, not only for the development of the student’s brain and their outlook, but also for their future employment prospects and the places to which Languages can take them in a world where monolingualism might even be termed the new illiteracy.

I have always loved languages but I was fortunate enough to grow up in an international community where it was simply normal to know that nobody cares if you make a mistake and that there is no greater pride than that which you feel when you get it right. How can we convey this to our students, to whom French has become an impossibly long list of irregular past participles, German is gigantic words in a strange order and Spanish is a listening activity that goes far too fast to follow?

We are lucky at Felsted. Our international students and those who speak more than one language at home embody the skills and the attitude which we are fighting to save. We also have smaller class sizes than many schools, enabling us to support and encourage the students who find the pressure of learning a foreign language overwhelming at times. We have a supportive Senior Leadership Team, who protect what we offer and are keen for us to grow, and finally the whole Felsted community encourages strong communication skills, an open mind, an awareness and understanding of other cultures, tolerance, compassion and so much more.

So the next time a student voices their concerns about the language they are studying in school, it is important to recognise that the current GCSE represents a substantial (but not insurmountable!) challenge, but at the same time it offers countless advantages and immense rewards. 

Whilst we await the outcome of discussions at Ofqual and hopefully the changes to the grading which may follow, we need to keep in mind that even if the final goal sometimes seems unachievable, the process of learning a foreign language is of substantial worth and unequivocal value.

“Learning another language is an enormous advantage. The ability to speak French and Italian has been a major help for me in my work as a journalist.”  Huw Edwards, BBC Journalist.

“Having international experience is vital. When we are taking on people, we want someone with that experience, as they tend to be willing to be mobile within our global business. Someone who has done a languages degree or has it in their DNA is a good communicator and that’s a vital part of working in this industry.” Steve Beswick, Microsoft UK.