Can you parlez-vous? Why learning languages matters

Sunday 31 October, 9.45am until 10.30am, Café Breakfast Banter

Is foreign language learning in the UK in terminal decline? The previous government made foreign languages an optional subject, and less than 30% of schools in the state sector now have languages as a compulsory subject to the age of 16. Many schools struggle to get even a dozen pupils through to GCSE, German has been phased out in many schools, and it is not unusual for schools to offer only one foreign language, usually French. The one set of qualifications on the rise are those in ‘heritage’ languages – whether Welsh or Bengali - in tune with multicultural Britain, and in many cases replacing an initiation into a new language. First in the queue to drop languages were a large number of schools in socially deprived areas. After all, so the argument goes, why do you need to know German if you’re likely to be living on benefits on an inner-city estate? There are much more relevant and practical things you could be learning that will help you get a job. But even some Language Specialist Schools are having difficulty in holding the line and have gone for optionality. 

So why are languages so unpopular? Are we all too ‘thick’, too lazy, too provincial to learn them? Is the teaching that bad? Does it even matter, if, after all, English is the ‘global’ language? Many among policy makers and captains of industry believe it does matter, but nobody really seems to know how to make a convincing case for this beleaguered area of the school curriculum. Attempts at linking languages to the prospects for pupil employability and the competiveness of UK plc may explain why paradoxically, at a time when so few secondary school pupils are learning a traditional European language for more than two or three years, Mandarin Chinese is being promoted as the foreign language to learn. In general, even today’s enthusiasts of learning foreign languages justify them more in terms of competing in the ‘global market’, becoming ‘global citizens’ or affirming minority cultures, rather than offering access to the cultural achievements of other countries, and giving young people a unique ‘window on the world’. Is it no longer possible to argue that knowledge of other languages will always be of importance as a cultural achievement, whether or not it is economically important with English as the global language of business?

Listen to session audio:


Sarah Cartwright
language teaching advisor, CILT, the National Centre for Languages

Dr Lynn Erler
research fellow in second-language acquisition, department of education, University of Oxford

Sabine Reul
translator, Textbüro Reul GmbH

Dr Shirley Lawes
researcher; consultant and university teacher, specialising in teacher education and modern foreign languages; Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes Académiques

Produced by
Dr Shirley Lawes researcher; consultant and university teacher, specialising in teacher education and modern foreign languages; Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes Académiques
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