European Languages…..suis-je bovvered?

Toby Seth

Headmaster, Pocklington School

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With results from the summer now in the rear view mirror, I can happily reflect on the nerves I felt at navigating my way through Ofqual’s A-level and GCSE grade analysis. For a committed linguist and nervous data analysis like me, this alone was traumatic enough, and once I finally found the information I was seeking, my level of neuroticism only increased. In tabular format, the slow but apparently inexorable disappearance of European foreign languages from our students’ timetables was stark.

Not one modern language featured in the top three or top two subject combinations in the Summer 2023 A level exams. Only when one considered the top single subject choices did Spanish make an appearance. It was the 24th (out of 25) most popular subject in the list. 2.5% of candidates opted to take it. This represented 7,465 individual candidates, compared to over 50,000 who each chose Chemistry, Biology, Psychology and Mathematics. But we know all this, don’t we?

How then, to make the case for a return of European languages? What can we draw on to inspire all students across the UK? What concrete arguments are there to encourage our 14- and 16-year-old learners to choose one of these most precious of subjects?

Perhaps, in this instance, we need the help of STEM subjects. Research has clearly demonstrated the physiological benefits of studying a language with the connections made through language learning helping our brain to perform better. Science has evidenced how older learners of languages have stimulated the brain and staved off neurological decrepitude through the simple use of apps such as Duolingo and others. Furthermore, my view is that studying a language isn’t necessarily about fluency. Rather, it seeks to promote a wider development of skills. Improved communication, verbal or otherwise, enhanced memory, increased confidence when talking to others, a broadening of one’s own native vocabulary, a stronger sense of empathy and of course deeper cultural understanding and openness to difference are all results of studying a language.

But wait, I hear Year 8 students say, why bother when they all those Europeans speak such good English? Well yes, there is little doubt that the quality of English across Europe has improved significantly. We see this at Pocklington in our European boarders and their increasingly adept use of English, strongly supported by their intense desire to perfect their control of the language.  They are, furthermore, ever more willing to throw themselves into boarding school culture. By the end of their stay with us, they present as near bilingual and semi-British! Is there something here we can tap into? We laud those pupils for their approach and willingness to dive into the relative unknown – should we not be expecting the same from our pupils, in some form? The experience of visiting (for however long) a foreign country is, without doubt, considerably enhanced by some control of the local language. The challenge of studying in a foreign language serves only to increase these students’ multitasking skills and, with the increasing propensity of our own students to study abroad, the opportunity to flex their own language learning muscles could again come to the fore.

Allied to this, the now commonplace flexibility in universities to study a language as a bolt-on to another subject could be a powerful motivator for pupils. A quick search through another database reveals a myriad of options including Mathematics with Spanish, French and Sustainable Development, German and Philosophy and even French with Politics (a heady cocktail). Some of these pathways include starting a new language afresh, via the ‘ab initio’ route, some allow for a mini-course in whichever language to simply keep your level topped up, or establish basic communication in your chosen tongue. Year abroad options are multiple, with the majority being based in European or at least European language speaking countries. Bolstering our students’ awareness of the flexibility at post-18 options has to be a benefit to all.

Whilst our connection to Europe in its political sense has been severely frayed, there are green shoots of reconnection. The decision to reinstate the Horizon Europe programme, Keir Starmer’s visit to the Hague at the time of writing and an increased (reluctant?) focus on engagement under the current Conservative government hint at a réchauffement between our nation and the EU. Who knows where it will end; but the likely end point must be more cooperation than less. Brexit has certainly made some of our pupils more cynical as to the value of European languages, but as its shockwaves recede, one would hope to see a continued acceleration in the more recent positive (in my view) direction of travel. Keep your fingers crossed for Erasmus+ next.

You’ve got this far and may be wondering at the curious title to this piece. It refers to the infamous (and, I now realise, quite old) sketch by Catherine Tate’s character Emily where, in less than five minutes, she humiliates her French teacher in an admittedly comedic but, for any linguist, rather upsetting way. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a quick chuckle, it’s worth a rewatch. Emily aside, European languages remain vital to our pupils’ all-round development. I for one, am certainly bovvered.


26 September 2023