Why learn a language? | Abingdon Senior School

Why learn a language?
By Michael Windsor, Headmaster

Today marks the European Day of Languages, an event we use here at Abingdon to celebrate all language-learning, not just that of European languages.

I feel that languages form a crucial part of any curriculum. This is perhaps not surprising considering my background, as I studied French and German at university and then lived in Italy for three years, so many of my formative experiences took place overseas and revolved around language-learning. I hope that every young person might be able to enjoy similar experiences even if they decide not to devote their lives to languages.

We have to face the fact though that on a national level languages in school are having a tough time. Over the past five years, the number of pupils taking French and German GCSE/IGCSE has fallen by a quarter and although the number taking Spanish has risen in the same period, the total number of candidates in Modern Foreign Languages has decreased by 50,000.

The decision to make languages optional after the age of 14 in maintained schools in the early 2000s has undoubtedly had an impact. Many schools have also dispensed with the once ubiquitous language exchange, dissuaded by cost and the difficulty of implementing appropriate safeguarding procedures.

As a linguist, it is a joy to lead a school which bucks the trend and has such a thriving languages department. A passionate and committed team takes every pupil to at least one GCSE/IGCSE in a foreign language, and numbers in the Sixth Form are very healthy, with students responding positively to the considerable demands of the Pre-U specification, which includes literature and film study, alongside discussion of contemporary topics.

Abingdon linguists are excelling in their exams too, and Pre-U results last summer were spectacular. All 27 candidates gained D2 and D3 grades – the equivalent of 100% A*/A – with all those sitting German (5 candidates) gaining a D2/A* equivalent.

This success is down to great classroom teaching, thanks to a team who think deeply about how they go about achieving the right balance between grammatical accuracy and fluency and between the different skills that a successful language learner needs. I also believe that our pupils benefit from the full programme of language exchanges and trips; indeed, we look forward to our annual visit from pupils from Bielefeld in Germany this weekend.

Promotion of languages on a national scale tends to focus on the more utilitarian benefits of learning a language; the advantages of applying for a job with a language, the transactional aspects of surviving abroad that form the basis of the GCSE.

I wonder if we miss a trick by not also focusing on the importance of immersion in the culture of a different country. If we can arouse pupils’ interest in the food, art, literature, sport and lifestyle of the relevant countries, it brings the study of a language truly to life.

I also feel that it is deeply important that we educate young people to understand and love the way in which our neighbours live; perhaps more important than ever as we are about to leave the framework of the European Union with the resulting need to strike closer accords with individual countries.

So, let’s all find a way to mark the Day of Languages, whether it’s by learning a phrase in a new language, resuscitating our old languages or simply sampling the culture of another country; anyone for a glass of Chianti?

As they say in Moldova, noroc! (trans: good luck!)

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