Life around the world

Sunday, 12 October, 2014 - 18:26

Learning a language - what's the point?

by EmmaQ

I arrived in France two weeks ago, and have started teaching in a Lycée here (for students around 15-18 years old). Now the school system here is very different to in England, but one of the main things that has stood out to me is that EVERYONE, even those doing BTS (a two-year specialist program for various specialities like accounting and marketing, where students are 18-23) have to study at least one foreign language.

Now in England, when I was at school, we started learning a language at 11 years old. We didn’t get to choose which language; we were just told that we would be learning French, German or Spanish. Then, once you were 14, if you didn’t like studying a language, or you weren’t very good at it, you could quit. Just like that, you could give it up in favour of another subject that was maybe easier. If you hadn’t quit learning a language by the age of 16, then the majority stopped there. In fact, out of my year group of 150-200 students, at 17 years old only 12 people studied a language.

Until I moved here, I didn’t really think much of this. It’s not common to be able to speak two languages in England (in fairness, there are many English people who struggle to speak properly in English!). But actually, those numbers are really shocking. This system has created the expectation that everybody will be able to speak at least some English. When we go on holiday, we speak English. Somebody comes to our country - they must speak English to us.

Now as a language student, I’ve always been very aware of trying to speak other languages. I’ve never spoken a word of Italian, but if I was visiting Italy I’d make sure I knew at least some basic words to not only get by, but just to seem polite! If a French person came to England and started asking for directions in French, everybody would think that was so rude! But that’s exactly what we do. We create a cultural barrier. 

Since being here I’ve met some Italians, and although they speak a bit of English, they struggle, and so it’s easier for us to talk in French. If you only have one language, you cut yourself off from a whole other world.

I would love to be able to speak more than two languages, even just the basics, and this year is inspiring me to learn. English speaking people need to be encouraged to learn languages more without a doubt. I do believe that you should focus on the more practical side of languages though. My students are talking about Greek mythology at the moment; interesting, but probably not going to be an incredibly useful topic further on in life. Why not teach asking for directions, making conversation about your hobbies and families, and what to do if you’re working in a shop and a foreign customer comes in to make a complaint.

I’ve told my students this week: I don’t care if your sentences aren’t grammatically correct, use perfect vocabulary or even if you get incredible marks. If you make the effort to speak to me in my own language, then I will always be impressed.

So even though language learning is tough, don’t give up! Some day it will come in handy, and you’d regret not knowing how to ask a local for directions!

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