The Language of Aspiration

Tony Emmerson

Senior Deputy Head, The English College in Prague

Read the blog

Speaking Up for a Global Britain. That these words are being written, or indeed read, tells us the extent of the problem. That we even need to promote the importance of European languages being taught in British schools tells is that as a society we are looking a little too much inwards, and not enough outwards, defying both pragmatism and idealism.

Leaving aside and cultural or intellectual arguments, studies “report multiple cognitive benefits of language study […] including enhancement of cognitive flexibility, higher cognitive reserve in advanced age, and delay in the onset of dementia”. Even the most insular nationalist should be supporting something that promotes the wellbeing of the population, especially in an ageing population. Extra French for everyone, on doctor’s orders? Unlikely.

But the days that we surrender our schools to being nothing more than a preparation for old age will be sad indeed, so what about our vigorous years? As someone who has lived in mainland Europe for over 15 years, I see on a daily basis the use of language to build and develop relationships. The mantra of “everyone speaks English” may usually hold true in the capital cities and the boardrooms of the continent, but taking such an approach places you firmly in the category of “outsider”; this is hardly the start of a beautiful friendship. The respect shown by even a ham-fisted attempt to communicate in the host language can win hearts and minds. Not even trying is the equivalent of shouting “egg and chips” in a trattoria. You’ll get it, possibly, but not a sneaky limoncello on the house. Surely a basic grounding in a European language is a basic need for those wishing to engage beyond the borders of Britain?

Teaching European languages in schools not only provides the tools for this, but models the importance of reaching out across the cultural divide. With this comes a culture of aspiration: the thought that one day you may need to do business in Paris or Prague sits easy in the mind of some pupils, but I can personally testify that for a boy from Buxton making his way through a comprehensive, this was not a priority. We need to encourage our children to dream big, beyond their current borders. This is what a true “Global Britain” looks like.

UK schools need to address language teaching through multiple channels. Starting language education at secondary level is a disaster. Not only is the brain starting to lose its sponge-like capabilities to soak up knowledge, but teenage self-consciousness is starting to take over. Not every eleven-year-old boy wishes to stand up and recite French poetry. Many are frightened of their own voice in their native tongue, never mind reaching for some Hasta mañana monsieur.

We also need greater sharing of best practice, spreading the expertise in teaching both language and culture in a way that can excite and motivate. A recent review of MFL GCSEs was criticised by John Claughton  for focusing too much on vocabulary lists and too little on the cultural contexts that engage the young mind and provide a reason for the language to be learnt. Within HMC there are some excellent language departments, as there are in all sectors. A nationwide collaborative initiative to promote European languages (and I’d include Latin in that!) which captured and shared this expertise would be such an asset to education in the UK. But as ever, it is a question of where money and time are spent. Too many minds (schools, families, pupils) have too many other priorities.

And that, really is the problem. Greater cultural understanding, the ability to read literature in its original language, and the ability to think, not just speak, in a different vocabulary are high-minded ideals, and what place have these in daily grind of 2023?

A change in national culture is needed, but if there’s one place you can change a national culture it is in schools, especially those with the independence and resources to follow their hearts and moral compasses. Overseas schools can have a vital role in this too, offering opportunities to both teachers and students from the UK that may broaden horizons.

Whatever the solution is, it will involve collaboration and mutual understanding. A very European ideal. Bonne chance!


26 September 2023