‘But Miss, why do I need to learn French?’

I’m not sure my class mates and I ever received a convincing answer to this question. But, at 11, what I didn’t know was that learning another language (or two) would open up possibilities I’d never imagined.

What’s more, blissfully ignorant in my monolingual bubble, I had no idea that I was in the global minority or as Bernadette Holmes provocatively put it in her opening address at the Westminster Education Forum last month, that I was ‘locked inside the prison of English’. It’s estimated that more than half of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual and there are figures to show that there are more second-language speakers of English than there are native speakers. So, while knowing English may be an advantage given its increasing global use, it’s unlikely to be enough.

As educators, we are concerned with successfully preparing our learners to find jobs, which as OECD’s Andreas Schleicher reminds us don’t yet exist. However, isn’t the core purpose of education to prepare learners more broadly for life beyond school? While policy-makers and politicians in the UK might scramble to try and quantify the benefits of language learning in economic terms, the advantages go well beyond immediate economic gains. They stray into individual cognitive abilities, culture, social cohesion, international relations and national security to mention a few.

As I listened to an impressive line-up of speakers from a variety of sectors speculating on ‘The future for Modern Languages at GCSE and A-Level’ (in the UK), I thought back to my 11 year-old self asking, ‘Why do I need to learn French?’ And the answer came from one of the speakers, Head teacher Ian Bauckham: “You don’t. You don’t need to learn French. But, you do need to learn another language.”

For many speakers of other languages, the choice of their first foreign language is often an easy one, English. For so called ‘native’ English speakers this choice may be a little harder. Often, extrinsic motivation for learners is drawn from the implicit understanding the skills they are learning now will be needed later in life. But, surrounded by tired pictures of the Eiffel tower in my secondary classroom in Northwest England, this wasn’t a link that was immediately evident to me.

But, the truth is, and this is what Bauckham was getting at, it’s not necessarily the language per se that matters – it’s understanding how to learn a language that’s important. As the Director of Studies in Modern Languages from the University of Cambridge so illustratively put it, “it’s providing the slots for future languages”- the future languages that, as we move through life, for one reason or another, become important. And as another delegate pointed out, getting to grips with the artful construction of another language provides a new window onto your own language. As I discover new things about new languages, I’m certainly prompted to ask questions about my own.

So, in order to prepare our students for the future, perhaps it’s not just about supporting them in some cases to move from being monolingual to multilingual but supporting them to become metalingual or as one speaker offered, ‘flexilingual’. I hope, if you find yourself faced with the question, ‘But Miss, why do I need to learn French?’ you won’t be short of answers.

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  1. Two thirds seems a lot at first glnace but then there is e.g.:- lots of countries have more than one (un)official language- tourism (in poor countries) stimulates the local population to learn other languagesso it makes a lot of sense!Also a wise step for Japan to include English at school! Will definitely boost their business even more At this point, it’s still quite the challenge to communicate with Japanese businessmen

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