Love of Language Learning - Head's Blog

Posted on: 01/03/2019

The BBC reported this week that foreign language learning is at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium, with their analysis showing frankly alarming drops of between 30% and 50% since 2013 in the numbers of children taking GCSE language courses in some areas of England. A separate survey of UK secondary schools suggests that a third have dropped at least one language from their GCSE options.

To those of us who believe passionately in the advantages of learning languages, this is concerning news indeed, especially as business organisations have expressed concern at the lack of language skills in the UK. Matthew Fell, Chief UK Policy Director for business group the CBI, said: "Employer demand for French, German and Spanish skills has significantly increased over the last few years. 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. As well as speaking a foreign language, increasing young people's cultural awareness and their ability to work with people from around the world is just as important."

Mr. Fell makes important points: in a global marketplace and with Brexit imminent, the ability of the UK’s future leaders in all sectors to communicate effectively with their counterparts across the world is likely to be crucial. For the next generation, being able to speak languages other than English can surely only assist with this.

Moreover, there is undeniable merit in learning languages for their own sake. As a school teaching three languages, we see daily that language learning helps to instil, even in the very young, discipline, perseverance, the development of ‘an ear’ for meaning and expression, the ability to choose the correct word, phrase or tone to convey meaning and emotion, listening skills, grammatical knowledge and skills, conversational/interview skills, an appreciation of the subtleties of communication, and tolerance and respect for other languages and cultures. So it is clear to us that the teaching of languages imparts the all important ‘soft skills’ often mentioned by employers as being of equal importance with examination results and acquired knowledge.

For its survey, the BBC attempted to contact every one of the almost 4,000 mainstream secondary schools in the UK, and more than half - 2,048 - responded. Of the schools which replied, most said the perception of languages as a difficult subject was the main reason behind a drop in the number of pupils studying for exams, with pupils believing it would be harder for them to achieve a top GCSE grade in a language than in other subjects.

This is deeply worrying, but hardly surprising when you consider that, nationwide, many pupils transfer at 11+ into their senior school with very little, if any, experience of learning languages at primary level. We are very proud that this is not the case for St. Helen’s College children, where language learning is given a high priority. Our pupils learn Spanish from the age of 2, French from the age of 8 and Latin from the age of 9. Every child aged between 6 and 10 also takes part, every year, in the U-Talk National Languages competition, through which they have the opportunity to learn (for fun) three further languages each year - one European, one Asian and one African - and to enjoy competing online against pupils from across the United Kingdom. St. Helen’s College pupils learn about French, Spanish and Roman culture, develop relationships with French pen pals and spend a full week immersed in French language and culture during their Year 6 languages trip to the Chateau de la Baudonniere in Normandy, where they also have the chance to visit a French school and meet with their pen pals.

Our languages curriculum therefore gives pupils the opportunity to gain a solid grounding in grammar and vocabulary. St. Helen’s College children reach a good level in two of the most widely spoken languages, French and Spanish, and relish their introduction to several other languages. During their time with us, children become able to identify similarities and differences in languages and cultures; they also develop a love of languages and a willingness to ‘have a go’ at learning pretty much any new language which comes along. This week, observing Spanish lessons in Reception, it has been impressive to see the children’s confidence at the age of 4 and 5, as they are immersed in the language, learning numbers and actions through song. This foundation, laid during the children's earliest years with us, is built upon over the years to develop into a strong linguistic interest, confidence and skill set by the time they reach Year 6. There is no doubt that St. Helen’s College children love their language learning and leave us with an excellent grounding in this area. They are well equipped to tackle - and hopefully to excel at - languages at GCSE and A level in their senior school of choice.

In England, Ministers say that they are taking steps to reverse the nationwide decline in language learning and this is, in our view, absolutely essential. The government reportedly has a £2.5m plan which aims to increase the take-up of modern foreign languages at GCSE and A-level through new centres of excellence. Let us hope that this plan is successful but, whether it is or not, at least we know that St. Helen’s College children will be ready, willing and able to take full advantage of language learning at senior school and throughout their lives, since they have been lucky enough to attend a linguistic centre of excellence in their youngest years!