More Than a Language – Exploring the World Through Words

Philippa Studd

Principal of the Junior School, Highgate School

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When I meet a new class on the first day of a new term, I have a tradition. I like to share two stories that, in my view, encapsulate why I consider myself, first and foremost, a teacher of languages, rather than just a Principal. Excitedly, I tell them that I have a deep passion for learning languages, and it’s not just about the convenience of conversing with taxi drivers or hotel staff when travelling. It’s about the incredible world of experiences that become accessible when you can connect with people in their native tongue.

Let me start with the first story. My friend and I were trying to figure out how to operate a field plough at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi. We were pushing and struggling, making little progress, when an elderly Vietnamese man approached us and began to give instructions in French. As we adjusted our positioning based on his guidance, he shared fascinating tales from his own youth working in the fields. The interaction left a profound impression on my friend, who not only didn’t speak French but also had no idea that Vietnam was a former French colony. In fact, before this encounter, the museum hadn’t managed to pique our curiosity. However, to this very day, it remains a topic we frequently discuss and remember fondly.

The second story happened during a 3-week expedition in Nicaragua. The group I was travelling with were completing some project work, painting a school. After several days chatting to and getting to know the local family who were cooking and bringing us our daily meals, they invited us to their house for a party. My colleague and I conducted a reconnaissance trip and updated our risk assessment to enable the plan to be put into action. Later, we took our students into the local village where they were treated to plátano frito, reggaeton dancing, and karaoke with the locals. It was a true cultural exchange, and it highlighted the power of language as a bridge between worlds. Two of the group, who had just finished their GCSEs at this point, returned home and swapped their A-Level options as a result. Two years later, they both returned to South America on their gap years before heading off to study Languages at University. Why? Because this encounter gave them the taste for adventure and showed them how learning a language can enrich this further.

Learning a language, you see, goes far beyond memorizing vocabulary or mastering verb conjugations. It’s a gateway to history, politics, current affairs, science, maths, music, drama, and art. There isn’t a subject on the national curriculum that isn’t enriched by the exploration of a language and its accompanying culture. Moreover, language learning cultivates essential skills like empathy, effective communication, and critical thinking. In essence, learning a language is akin to unlocking a door to a hidden world that would remain undiscovered otherwise.

This year, following a visit to see it in action at Norwich School, we have decided to introduce WoLLoW (World of Languages, Languages of the World) to our upper KS2 curriculum and I am most excited to be teaching Year 5 their part of the course. We eagerly anticipate witnessing the course’s influence on the enthusiasm and engagement of our emerging linguists. They will uncover the intricate connections between languages, share their own unique knowledge and heritage, and embark on a fascinating journey into the history and origins of words.

We hope, through the language curriculum we provide at Highgate Junior School, to continue to cultivate a generation of young people who feel empowered, enthused and excited to continue their language studies as they move through the Senior School and seek out their own adventures like the aforementioned stories of a linguist in Nicaragua and Vietnam.


26 September 2023