'It's no shock that boys are avoiding languages'

We need to think more about how language-learning in schools is seen through a teenage boy's eyes, says Isabelle Dépreux

Isabelle Dépreux

How can we persuade more boys to study languages in schools?

The news that boys are eschewing the learning of languages does, while sad to hear, not come as a shock to me.

As the head of language learning at an all-girls’ school, I am also the mother of two boys, one a teenager. Benefiting from a multilingual mother, my children are, I’m glad to say, language and culturally fluent.

However, had it not been for this parental input, I’m not so sure it would have been the case.


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Learning a language is like having a baby: you are far removed from your normal comfort zone.

Beginning a new language at the often emotionally-fragile teenage years is hard enough as it is and, what's more, I find that boys are naturally more inhibited in general.

Getting more boys into languages

Not to mention that everyone is familiar with the jokes about women asking for directions while men drive around for hours rather than possibly losing face.

It’s the same in a language class. Girls bounce back from mistakes more easily, while boys are concerned about being seen as weak and having their peers’ judge. Often, girls have taken drama classes from a young age and are used to public speaking and, crucially, making mistakes in public.

Language learning is a formulaic process – a type of skill-set that male brains often favour. However, spouting incorrect verbs in front of the opposite sex can, for boys, be an excruciating experience.

Modern curriculums have become very rigid. Boys, I think, need more "gender-specific" topics to which they can relate and feel confident in describing, whether that's football, rugby, certain musicians, cars or something else.

Additionally, working in boy-only groups within the class could remove some of those inhibitions.

Writing in our school’s annual magazine, The Times’ Paris correspondent, Charles Bremner, noted that: “Every language expresses a world seen through different eyes.”

I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps we all need to think how language-learning in schools is being seen through the prism of a teenage boy?

Isabelle Dépreux is head of languages at Kilgraston School in Perthshire, Scotland

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Isabelle Dépreux

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