Why reinstate the compulsory teaching of modern foreign languages up to the age of 16?

I recently re-tweeted a link from a twitter contact urging people to sign the petition to reinstate the compulsary teaching of modern foreign languages up to the age of 16 and withing moments I received a message from another contact asking me why I believe this, which  has led to this blog post.

Twitter  @spanishsam - Mozilla Firefox 01092009 203719.bmpFirstly, let me  offer the quote directly from the petition’s page: “The government dropped the requirement to teach foreign languages to all children up to the age of 16 in 2002. As a result there has been a dramatic fall in pupils taking these subjects. This leads to a catastrophic loss of international understanding, cultural enjoyment and business competitiveness. We believe that all school students deserve to gain an understanding of the world outside these shores and a chance to communicate with others. In addition we believe this will improve students’ confidence, increase tolerance and enable more students to gain access to international jobs. This will help to enable young people to improve their lives by introducing them to the joys of other cultures.”

I wholely support the above statement as I truely believe that learning a language gives pupils the opportunity to improve their lives by developing their level of self-awareness and their understanding of others, whilst giving them what could be considered a life-changing skill. It certainly was for me. Most passionate teachers are not just passionate about teaching, but they are also passionate about their subject. On a personal level, Spanish is my passion, it is my fire, it is my creativity. Without Spanish my life would have been completely different and I would certainly have never become a teacher. In fact, my degree is in Accounting & Finance & Spanish. Take out the language and where would I be? Bored? In an office? With it, I am in an ever-changing environment that challenges me, stretches me and enthuses me everyday, whilst still allowing me to carry on the with the subject that I continued with to university level simply because I enjoyed it.

I recognise that not everyone will wish to continue with a language to A Level or beyond, however the skills that language learning produce in a human being a boundless. One could argue that it is one of the first things we learn to do in our lives: communicate. Language acquisition in a child is a remarkable thing to see develop, and it is also remarkable to see this development in the languages learned later in life. One of my pedagogical beliefs is to use and encourage the use of target language as much as possible in the classroom, in an attempt to simulate the language acquisition that every person goes through in their life. Learning a second language as a child or young teenager can improve development and awareness of words. Learning a language, such as Spanish, can be such a useful experience for pupils who struggle with the complex and often conflicting rules of spelling and pronunciation in English, and through learning this second language they become more aware of the structure of their own language, thereby offering support to difficulties encountered in English or literacy.

Having the opportunity to learn a language to the age of 16 is not about becoming fluent – after all, we do not expect mathematicians or physicists to be able to do complex equations or experiements to this age. Learning a language to the age of 16 is about awareness. Awareness of one’s own culture and other’s. Awareness of the country in which we live and the diversity it offers, combined with awareness of the wider world. Awareness of language and words combined with awareness of communication. The world that we live in today is becoming smaller and smaller as advances in technology and transport shorten the bridges to cross in order to reach different places. Not only do we need to be able to communicate effectively in this wider world (and who is to say that this should be done in English?) but we also need to be aware of the cultural differences that each place has to offer. Learning a language to GCSE level will offer pupils an insight into these cultural differences – they can learn about the different ways that Christmas can be celebrated, they can find out more about religion and the impact it has on society, or they can gain pleasure from watching a film or listening to music in a foreign language.

In the global community that we are building, knowing another language can open so many doors both socially and professionally. The nature of the global changes taking place means that in order for Britain to continue to be a ‘respected’ member of this community we need people to represent us. Do we really wish to be represented as lager swilling hooligans at football matches?

If you need any further reasons as to why language learning can be so important, then look at this excellent previous entry to the LAFTA competition:



  1. Languages is the only subject area which offers (or is capable of offering) a whole array of skills.
    Grammar and therefore awareness of how language works – braely done in English anymore
    Reading skills – looking for cognates, synonyms, examining context
    Listening skills – learning how to sift a heard text to identify the required info, taught specifically not just expected
    Speaking / Writing skills – how to put together arguments, describing, persuading, explaining.
    Global awareness, citizenship, numeracy, healthy lifestyles
    Optional extras:
    presentation skills, IT skills……

    Every language teacher should just add up the number of times a parent says ” I wish I’d have been more attentive in French lessons etc etc etc.” That would justify it’s reinstatement as a core subject.

    Thanks for this post.

  2. I hope you don’t take question with any offence.
    Passion is vital. My personal passion is learning, in particular in, though not limited to, Design and Architecture. I believe that understanding your environment, local and global, and how you can make a difference to that environment is a vital life skill.
    I have had pupils work with pupils from America and Spain. The pupils worked in English but it inspired 3 to go away and learn conversational Spanish via radio lingua . They all got an understanding of the cultural influences from different cultures and where they stand in that. They also had to standardise on metric measurements.
    Do I believe that everyone should study my subject till they are 16, no.
    I agree that learning a language at an early age can be an advantage. It helps develop vocabulary and understanding of the world. I do struggle as a badly dyslexic learner (In case you hadn’t guessed) that learning a foreign language aids your understanding of confusing English. I was totally lost in French at school. I know have reasonable conversational German because I had a better understanding of how I learned and I had a much higher motivation.
    I think you actually hit a point yourself. It’s about the opportunity. Opportunity is about choice. Allow pupils to have as many experiences as possible and then they find what their passion is. Then allow them and support them to push that as far as possible. The question in my head is ‘Will they all have the same passion?’ and if they don’t will you encourage them towards a language and learning by making them study it in certificated classes till the age of 16?

    • An interesting reply – thank you.

      Firstly, no of course I didn’t take your question with any offence – this is what our online community does best: debate, discuss and learn.

      I appreciate your understanding of the benefits of language learning, and I also understand that some learners of langauges may find it frustrating, especially if they have learning needs such as dyslexia. I think that there is perhaps much more support and understanding of these needs than there ever was before, and if teachers and learners are more aware of what they need in order to learn better, then surely that will enable better learning? What I am trying to say is, perhaps, we should consider the needs of the children first. It may be more suitable for a learner with special education needs to study Spanish or German instead of French, as they are often more logical and easier to pronounce. The advantage of having a variety of modern foreign languages available in a school means that a pupil can experience them in KS3 and chose to continue with just one (or more if they wish) for GCSE. By removing compulsary language study at KS4 schools have found that their language uptake has dropped, and teachers are left with less hours (or perhaps no job) as there are less pupils to teach. This in turn reduces the variety available to them. By having a few languages available to chose from, pupils can chose the one that suits them better – I am not suggesting for one minute that all pupils do French. Again it is about choice, and as you say, opportunity.

      French and German uptake at GCSE have reduced drastically across the country, although Spanish numbers are about the same
      . Perhaps Spanish is now the more popular choice, instead of the previously popular French. Why? Opportunity. The amount of people around the world that speak Spanish is immense, Spain is a hop-skip-and-a-jump away, and with transport being what it is today it is an easy place to get to.

      I also like your comment on allowing pupils to find their own passion. Offering a few different languages to pupils in KS3 and allowing further development of the one they choose in KS4 and beyond gives pupils the chance to experience so much. And do you know what? If a pupil of mine chose not to carry on with a language after the age of 16 at least I know that they have a basic understanding of what some bits of the world out there offer, and maybe, just maybe, I have opened the door (even just a tiny crack, a long way off into the future) to the world that is out there when you can speak another language.

  3. You don’t address here the issue of which languages young people should be learning.

    The French people often learn is not much use in Hungary; spend five years learning Spanish, and you’re illiterate and tongue-tied in China or Japan. Arabic? Where are the teachers? And which form of Arabic?

    I’d like to suggest a radical solution – wider use of Esperanto. It has a value in itself, and has been shown to be a good introduction to the learning of other languages.

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