At school, I remember French lessons being some of the best; most of this probably had something to do with the fact that my teacher brought us croissants and pastries and well, who doesn’t love free food? With the freshly baked pastries aside, I genuinely loved the lessons as it felt like I was diving into another world and culture through the sounds that I was making, and the scribbles in my exercise book. Yet, whilst I sat in awe at the proficiency of my teacher, dreaming to one day speak this language fluently, the rest of my class were often bored, uninterested – frankly, many didn’t see the point in learning something that seemed so unnecessary and confusing.
Not that long ago, languages were cultural capital and a way of showcasing your dedication, intelligence and often your social status. Today, fewer and fewer students are studying GCSE languages and even less at A-Level and beyond– why is this?
One large factor could be the relationship we have with languages in the UK. As a nation whose main language is primarily English – the fact that English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, with approximately 1.5 billion English speakers worldwide, could leave students of the UK feeling without the necessity of learning another language. There are 67 countries with English as its primary language, with a further 27 countries noting this language as its secondary language, making up nearly half of the world’s countries.
With such a large proportion of the world speaking English, working, travelling, or living abroad is likely to be easier than ever before for English-speakers. Simply put, perhaps students and the people of the UK are not studying languages due to a lack of necessity. But where does this lack of necessity stem from?
Britain was once a colonial nation, ruling over 23% of the world’s population across 80 nations. British values and lifestyles were forced upon the citizens of these nations; this included the English language which became a signifier of greater education and elitism. With globalisation and English speaking countries at the centre of the technological heart of trade, Western ideals permeated throughout the world and are currently being perpetuated more so now by the popularisation of social media. Non-English speakers often have to learn English as a second language to compete in the competitive business world as it is no longer seen as a benefit but as a requirement. If one is brought up to speak English, there is little need to study a second language.
Another reason for the overall trend of diminishing number of language students perhaps lies within the realm of the education system. With the introduction of tougher exams in the UK and an ever-growing pressure on schools to get their students to achieve the best grades, learning a language is not the easy fix that schools and students are looking for. Language learning requires time, effort, and dedication, often requiring you to get your head around new words, phrases and grammar that feels uncommon and alien to most language learners. Less traditionally academic students are perhaps steered away from languages and towards other subjects that suit their natural abilities- but how can we expect students to grow and to learn a language, engage with other cultures if we never give them the chance?
As students and citizens of the United Kingdom, I believe that there are a range of benefits to learning languages: improved cultural awareness, an increased understanding of grammar and linguistics, confidence- building, as well as personal academic skills. If we are ever to benefit from these as a society, we need to change our relationship with learning languages, returning to a time where English is not the default.
Written by Mason Wakley