Teresa Tinsley and Linda Parker make a persuasive case for language teaching beyond the age of 14
"What's the point of studying languages?"
"I'll never need languages for my career."
"My son can't even speak English properly."
"Everyone speaks English anyway."
"They don't learn enough for it to be worthwhile."
An NOP poll last autumn indicated that more than 90 per cent of adults think that languages are an important part of a child's education, yet when it comes to the crunch at key stage 4 option time, negative attitudes such as these still persist. They have the effect of limiting opportunities and depressing motivation all round, yet sometimes it is not just students and their parents but our own colleagues and senior managers who fail to challenge these assumptions.
If languages are to have a successful future in our schools we need to confront such views, as they are at odds with the fundamental purpose of education to transform life chances. For pupils, today's investment in language learning may seem a long way from tomorrow's gain. This is why we need to promote the subject strongly - to heads and other school staff, to parents and governors, and most of all to the pupils themselves.
We need to know other languages to: understand another point of view; appreciate the culture of other countries; be competitive in business; be able to negotiate from a position of strength; and sometimes even just to get on the right bus. Relying on others to speak English is a dependent relationship. It puts us in a weak position when, paradoxically, we have so much to gain from the prevalence of our language.
In his recent publication English Next, David Graddol points out that the economic advantage of speaking "English only" is ebbing away. "The global triumph of English is not a done deal", he says, pointing to the rise of the BRICs economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China). The shift of economic power over the next 20 years will mean the end of western domination of the world economy and with it, according to Graddol, the relative importance of English.
What do the following have in common? Flying from Luton, Belfast or Bristol airports; travelling on the London tube; buying clothes at Zara; banking with Abbey National; having a mobile phone contract with O2. The people who do these things are all customers of Spanish companies. Many young people are likely to be employees of such companies in the future - or ones owned by French, Japanese or German companies.
Research carried out recently with multinational companies based in the UK shows that languages are crucial to promotion prospects in these companies, and may be the key to keeping a job when they restructure or relocate.
Tomorrow's employees will be at an advantage if they can be mobile.
Not all young people will be affected by these trends in international business, but most will come into contact with foreign suppliers, partners, customers or colleagues at some point in their working lives. But it's not only about employment. Tomorrow's global citizens are likely be even more mobile than we are today - they may wish to study abroad, travel more extensively, live in other countries, buy second homes, do voluntary or charity work. International opportunities come more easily to those with foreign language skills and a basic grounding at school provides the springboard.
Language learning should not just be for an elite: every young person deserves the chance to learn a language and is capable of achieving a basic level. The young people from other countries who work for a time in the UK - as beauty therapists, waiters, shop assistants or builders - do not emerge from their education systems fully fluent in English, but they do have a basic knowledge on which to build. They are not especially talented linguists, yet language learning is within their reach.
Our book, Making the case for languages at Key Stage 4, does not attempt to make a case for languages in isolation. Languages should not be an additional burden for school managers. Languages have a place at the heart of educational objectives we all support, our arguments are closely linked to the desired outcomes of Every Child Matters, and to what is driving reform in the 14-19 curriculum. Learning languages is about enjoying and achieving, getting the most out of life and developing skills for adulthood.
* Making the case for languages at Key Stage 4 is a new Pathfinder publication produced by CILT, the National Centre for Languages, together with the Association for Language Learning. Price pound;10. Available from Central Books
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