Letters extra: reasons to learn languages

Peter Wilby's article ("Brave Estelle takes on French army" March 1) set out to be deliberately provocative, but was also badly informed and illogical. His central argument seems to be that learners should not be obliged to study a subject for which they see no relevance.

Why stop at languages? For how many of our teenage learners is a study of Death of a Salesman , the Periodic Table or trigonometry of use?

Of course there is value in all these things, as there is in learning to use a language, and the purpose of the curriculum is to provide opportunities to discover such things.

If it is clear that some students do not see the use of such learning, the task is to make that use more obvious. Languages are not an elitist subject, they are highly democratic, used for personal and professional purposes - not "studied" but immediately put into practice. Returning languages to an options system would restrict them to a specialism.

Peter Wilby's idea that a language is useful vocationally for "hardly anything" flies in the face of all research. The central point of the Nuffield Report and the developing National Strategy for four languages is to improve the national capability in languages, in part certainly for trading purposes.

Languages are essentially humane, and to do with relationships between people; the strait-jacketed view of a language at school being an academic subject has been out of date since the opening up of access to all learners. A language lesson is now highly practical and interactive, and a language teacher, far from being an "academic snob" is concerned with making learning relevant to a wide spectrum of pupils.

So Peter Wilby's examples of popular courses (media, film, sport, tourism), far from excluding a language, can and indeed should all have a languages angle to them. How can they not have in a global society in the 21st century?

Language teachers already do teach subjects in combination, and do a myriad other things when they can, in order to motivate their diverse learners, but are often constrained by exam syllabuses and pragmatic institutional concerns, which do not encourage, for instance, the sort of immersive learning Peter Wilby refers to.

Steven Fawkes
President elect, Association for Language Learning,
Rugby

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