Worthwhile, or a waste of time?Flickr: World Bank Photo Collection

For over a decade, the number of pupils taking foreign languages for A level and beyond has been diminishing rapidly. This is, in part, the government’s fault: around a decade ago, foreign languages were removed from the core curriculum, taking away many 14-year-olds’ motivation and impetus to speak another language. However, the falling popularity of languages is perhaps down to something more serious: a deep-rooted way of thinking; an arrogance even, that English speakers have no need to learn another tongue because their own is by far the most important.

It’s time, though, for this conception to be properly challenged. The government did have its reasons all those years ago for de-prioritising language study: to acquire fluency requires a dedication both outside and beyond school and university education. Learning a foreign language is perceived as a more difficult and perhaps elitist option, and not an obvious choice for future career prospects. But all these arguments fall apart on closer inspection, and in the light of the recent referendum, it’s becoming clear that being competent in a language other than your own is more important than ever. English may not be an official EU language for much longer.

In 2004, as part of the decision to remove languages from the core curriculum, Blair’s government compensated by asking all primary schools to teach them from the age of seven. In theory, this wasn’t a bad idea, but 12 years later it’s clear that it hasn’t worked. All primary schools teach languages differently, more often than not teachers are non-specialists, and the British Council has noted that pupils arrive in their secondary school with very different experiences of language learning and of widely varying quality. There is a disjuncture between primary and secondary schools: only 27 per cent of secondary schools are able to guarantee a pupil will be able to carry on a previously-studied language. This tends to create the perception of languages as being elitist – some are far more prepared to study them at a higher level than others. The overwhelming focus on GCSEs means that these pupils who haven’t been prepared as well are more likely to be taken out of language classes early, making learning more elitist, not less. As a result, the percentage of pupils taking languages to GCSE and beyond is falling.

Tony Blair’s government took languages off the core curriculumFlickr: Chatham House

This itself is worrying, but more worrying is the belief that these falling numbers don’t matter. There is a common perception that subjects like Maths, History and Politics are surely more suited to a lucrative career. Many people ask me how I’m going to get any sort of a job after university studying only French and Spanish and I have to respond with the old – but true – cliché (a word we wouldn’t have without French) of transferable skills: languages can be useful for anything from accountancy to diplomacy; teaching to law. Recently the Independent released an article highlighting the top nine languages for high paid jobs in Britain, and the starting salaries seem to chime precisely with the expectations of recent graduates. These languages vary – from Mandarin and Arabic to French and German – but the message is clear: having a second language can and will become a more sought after skill.

This is especially the case since companies increasingly (post-Brexit) are looking to move their business overseas, given the delicacy of relationships between Britain and other nations. Boris Johnson may have been a controversial choice for Foreign Secretary, especially in the eyes of his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault, but delivering his whole speech to the press in well-accented French when he met Ayrault for talks in July, did not go unnoticed. While it is true that learning English is compulsory in many other countries, this does not mean that we should rest on our laurels and scorn learning foreign languages. Not only is this ignorant, but if we stubbornly refuse, we lose so much of the cultural enrichment and personal satisfaction that increasing fluency in another language can bring.

English itself would not be the same without the existence of other languages. Just look at the Wikipedia page ‘List of French expressions in English’ – there are hundreds that we use every day. You might be blasé about the dominance of English, but a cul-de-sac is a far more poetic entity than what the prosaic English translation suggests. But then we come to the crux. Languages are difficult, far too difficult to master: they require so much dedication that is better targeted at other pursuits. There’s no doubt that achieving fluency will take years and it is all too easy to give up. Learning a language, though, isn’t just about becoming so comfortable with it that you can impress at the Parisian restaurant when you order your meal. The beauty of foreign languages is that studying them encompasses so much more than obscure grammar rules: literature, history, mathematical logic (though not always), art, maybe even science.

To learn a language is to learn its culture, its way of thought, its people. Languages are generous in that they don’t suddenly reveal everything only when perfection has been reached; they offer much with every step, and keep dangling the carrot to make you want to carry on. There are many different ways to learn a foreign language, too. You should only plunge yourself into a foreign culture when you’re ready: immersion is the logical next step, the time that should be enjoyed – and appreciated – the most. Languages aren’t about pressurising yourself, or striving to absolute perfection; with every step of learning you’re achieving things. There’s even some suggestion that learning a foreign language staves off Alzheimer’s.

Of course, you can go a long way without learning languages. For some people, languages just don’t click – just like with Maths, or English, or any other subject. But they are just as worthy a path as other pursuits. Wittgenstein said the limits of your language are the limits of your world. Let’s not limit ourselves

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