What is the point in learning a language?

Moves to make languages compulsory at KS 2


There is an almost unique resistance among the British to learning a foreign language. Why? The perception is that  it is better to focus on literacy, numeracy  the sciences and ICT (where we still lag internationally) and get those right  because they have greater utility in the work place. And ,besides,  one can get by using English  pretty much anywhere in the world.  It’s the international language of business,  after all.. etc.

However there is growing evidence that we are losing out by being so poor at languages and its a growing concern to employers,

A 2005 report found UK firms had lower foreign language capabilities than those in 28 other EU countries, with only 34 per cent of firms saying they were competent in any foreign languages, compared to 65 per cent in France and 74 per cent in Germany.  A 2009 CBI survey found that lack of language skills was the skills gap employers were most concerned about.   According to the survey, most employers (65%) are looking for conversational ability, rather than fluency, to help break the ice with customers or suppliers and to assist wider cultural understanding In the global economy our young people find themselves competing for jobs and opportunities with peers from across the world, many of whom speak English and often one or more other major languages.  In short  better language skills are beneficial for the economy and are demanded by UK firms but  are in short supply. But there is also evidence that learning a language helps other cognitive skills.

A DFE impact assessment finds that research shows that foreign language teaching improves spoken language and literacy in English and that it has all-round cognitive benefits, resulting in pupils being more receptive to teaching in all subjects. There is also evidence around cognitive development that suggests that children are better able to learn languages, and particularly the sounds of different languages, when they are younger.  In the high-performing jurisdictions DFE have considered, compulsory foreign language teaching is consistently introduced within the equivalent of our primary  phase.

Indeed, England is out of step with other jurisdictions in not introducing compulsory languages earlier than at Key Stage 3. Most tend to introduce compulsory languages teaching towards the end of our Key Stage 2; for example, Finland and Hungary introduce it at age nine and Victoria (Australia) and Ontario at age 10. Some start at around the beginning of our Key Stage 2; for example France at age seven and South Korea at age eight. New Zealand and Singapore introduce languages teaching at age six, and the Netherlands at age four or five.  In addition, head teachers have said that learning a foreign language plays an important part in community coherence.

The  DFE assessment states ‘The teaching of languages also has social benefits: it has a part to play in community coherence and a better understanding of different communities within our own society. It leads to an appreciation of cultural diversity and identity and thus to greater tolerance’. Given that schools with higher proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals, with English as an additional language, and those with lower results in statutory assessment at Key Stage 2 are the least likely to be teaching a foreign language at Key Stage 2, there is an important benefit in making the subject compulsory in terms of equality of opportunity.

In the existing National Curriculum teaching a modern foreign language is only statutory in Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14). A system of non-statutory incentives has met with some success in increasing the number of children in primary schools being taught a foreign language, but problems remain. However primary language teaching is not yet sustainable in many schools, due in large part to the non-statutory status of the subject. This means that we are not capitalising on the benefits that could be gained from making the subject compulsory at this key stage.  The Expert Panel advising the National Curriculum Review has set out their recommendation that language teaching should be introduced in the National Curriculum earlier than currently, based on international evidence of when other countries introduce language teaching, advice  from key stakeholders and responses to the National Curriculum review Call for Evidence.



A study published in the International Journal of Bilingualism found that schoolchildren who are fluent in a foreign language are better at problem-solving and creative thinking than their classmates. The author Fraser Lauchlan, an honorary lecturer at the University of Strathclyde school of psychological sciences and health, said: “Bilingualism is now largely seen as being beneficial to children but there remains a view that it can be confusing, and so potentially detrimental to them. “Our study has found that it can have demonstrable benefits, not only in language but in arithmetic, problem-solving and enabling children to think creatively. We also assessed the children’s vocabulary, not so much for their knowledge of words as their understanding of them. Again, there was a marked difference in the level of detail and richness in description from the bilingual pupils. “We also found they had an aptitude for selective attention — the ability to identify and focus on information that is important, while filtering out what is not — which could come from the ‘code-switching’ of thinking in two different languages.”


Note 2

The latest A level  results  revealed a continuing fall in the numbers of pupils taking modern languages – with French, Spanish and German in decline.


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