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The Importance of Learning Languages

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Many people will have heard the metaphor coined by the late, great language educator Eric Hawkins, that teaching a foreign language in school is like ‘gardening in a gale’. The idea that English gusts around, unsettling any young roots that may have taken tentative hold during the (very few) language lessons available each week, is a perceptive, if depressingly vivid image. 

In a post-Brexit, post-COVID world, the need to sow the seeds is ever more acute and more importantly create an environment in which those young roots grow, are regularly watered and nourished and grow. 

Languages have suffered more than most in recent years from a combination of events. 

Firstly, visits - students below Year 11 have not had an opportunity to go on the Paris Trip, to the Rheinland, to Cantabria, to Russia, which was often the first opportunity for many to fall in love with the country.

A trip to Russia is still off limits but a future career working at GCHQ in Cheltenham is ever more appealing! Those trips are returning and those who can go when offered the opportunity should embrace them with open arms. 

In the short term Year 7 Pupils can do the French Spelling Bee with the chance to win a trip to the National Final in Cambridge if successful. Germanists in Year 9 can do the languages Olympiad. Russianists can go to the very successful Russian Club. Students in Years 10 and above go to Foreign Language film clubs in French and Spanish. We have set up Penpal schemes for Years 10 and above with French and German schools that we are encouraging students to get involved with. We are clearly doing our best. 

So, how do we nurture interest in the day-to-day classroom and enthuse a love of languages? Firstly, by creating motivated learners who like to learn grammar and play with language, who enjoy and are exposed to foreign language films, articles, the news, literature in a post-Brexit Anglo dominated world. 

Do we know about the current elections in Italy and the concerns about a far right coalition, half of which supports sanctions and the other half which is pro Putin? Is Macron our friend or foe? Do we know what Russians think about being called up to fight in the Ukraine? These are all issues that affect our country and surely it is useful to know what people in those countries think rather than learning “knowledge” via the BBC or an unreliable, politically motivated media. 

University admissions tutors look for students who are motivated to read literature and learn and think for themselves. They don’t want passive students who parrot received ideas and do just enough to get through exams. They want life long learners who are curious about the wider culture. Engaging and being curious about the world around them. These are skills that are highly useful to future employers and learning a language helps you nurture those soft skills.

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