An open letter to my student peers: why you need to rethink languages

Language learning in school suffers from negative attitudes, cultural issues and an approach to teaching that is too guarded and not ambitious enough, says this Year 12 student

Megan Foley

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How many languages can you speak? The answer is most probably one: English.

I wholeheartedly believe that we should all finish school speaking at least one other language to a decent level, but currently this isn’t the case.

I can see the issue. You live your life surrounded by negative attitudes to languages, of “I can’t do it” and “This is pointless”. Your classes are filled with vocab list after vocab list, while grammar is a mystery to you. You don’t get it.

I know this because that’s exactly how I felt not too long ago. But now I think differently. I am currently studying the International Baccalaureate, in which Spanish is one of my main subjects; had someone said this to me two years ago, I would have laughed. But now I know languages are incredible to study, to embrace, to really connect with.

So where does the disconnect happen? 

Language difficulties

It’s a sad fact that in Britain, not many teenagers will take the time to learn languages in school, and after a lot of thinking, I think I’ve found the problem.

First, there is often an issue in how languages are taught in schools. I have been learning Spanish from the age of 11, but only really started to make progress in sixth form. In fact, within a year, I could have a conversation in Spanish, watch TV without English subtitles (Peppa Pig is great for beginners) and read online news without wanting to cry over how much I didn’t know.

How was the teaching different? Gone were the vocab lists of my younger years.

“You won’t need them,” my teacher said, “you’re going to learn words as we go along”.

And that is exactly what we did. We read texts, wrote paragraphs, spoke together and for the first time in my life, I felt as though I was learning Spanish.

Teachers need to throw their students in at the deep end; it’s the only way progress can be made.

Cultural change

But it’s not just teaching; the British attitude towards languages is quite frankly ridiculous. Go somewhere like Switzerland and the majority of people will speak at least three languages. It’s considered normal. In the UK, being fluent in another language still makes you an oddity. This puts us at a huge disadvantage.

Languages are the key to the world and a way for us to connect with other people and ways of life (plus, as a bonus, they’re really valued by employers).

I can’t begin to explain the excitement you feel the first time you understand a native speaker, or the pride when you remember what a particular word means. I promise you, if you are exposed to a language for long enough, you will get better at it.

You’ll discover new elements to your personality, and entire cultures will be opened up to you. The world is out there, and it’s high time we started interacting with it.

Megan Foley is a Year 12 student studying in Kent

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