With the study of maths to 18 being debated, Whitgift Headmaster Chris Ramsey suggests we might also look at prioritising modern languages  

At a time when the Prime Minister is talking up the value of maths ‘to the age of 18’, it is worth thinking about other subject areas where more, if not all, school leavers should have some proficiency. Another, surely, is modern languages? Once pretty universal at GCSE at least, across all schools, numbers have tumbled, and for German, even French perhaps, study at 16+ is pretty much the preserve of the independent sector. What should our students know and understand in terms of languages, and at what ages?

Well, in the age-old battle for British educators to instil a love of and desire for language learning – fuelled, as we all know, by the prevalence of English across the world – we language teachers (I was – I don’t say am – one) have not made life easy for ourselves with dull GCSE specifications and sometimes patronising textbooks. Students don’t even want to talk to adults about their home life and holidays in English, let alone Spanish. So, despite excellent work by the likes of John Claughton and Steffan Griffiths and their excellent ‘Wollow’ programme, language study still suffers from some misconceptions.

“Setting the expectation that all students will master some Korean, Japanese or Mandarin bears fruit – they actually like the challenge”

The first is that studying languages is difficult and therefore not for all. Well, it depends on where you set your sights. My first job in teaching was at Shrewsbury School, where we ran a (for then) radical programme entitled Languages For All. Every sixth former had to study a language, either for A or AS level or as an ab initio (‘get by in’) course, or simply undertake some further study in the language they had done to GCSE. And every boy did indeed do some language.

Another is that modern languages are not for any student with learning difficulties, especially dyslexia. Again, not necessarily true: Wellington, where I was Head of Languages, insisted on all students studying French to GCSE, and even those who struggled rose to the challenge.

Whitgift School on prioritising languages
The myths around modern languages need to be dispelled, argues Whitgift School’s Chris Ramsey – and students enjoy tough challenges

Many also accept without question the myth that ‘hard’ languages are beyond children’s capabilities. At Whitgift, we find the opposite is true: especially at a young age. Setting the expectation that all students will master some Korean, Japanese or Mandarin bears fruit –they actually like the challenge. Young people love to solve puzzles, and they rather like the mystery of it all. Incidentally, as an all-boys’ school, we are also able to disprove the myth that boys, specifically, don’t like languages.

Three years ago, partly to try to prove to myself that I could still do it, I started to learn Arabic – often named one of the hardest languages to learn. And here I discovered the transformational role Artificial Intelligence can play. Duolingo and Busuu both respond to the learner’s progress, prompt you to practise, chart your progress and, in the case of the latter, put you in touch with native speakers who can help you.

So, I would put language learning, at some level, alongside maths as something which should be part of every senior pupil’s experience. It’s both humbling (in that it genuinely puts the learner into someone else’s shoes and shares another peoples’ experience) and exciting. To have a Moroccan actually answer a question I’d asked in Arabic was probably the high point of my recent holiday.

As with all things, the key is to aim high. Don’t avoid ‘difficult’ languages, don’t assume less ability than pupils have and, above all, find topics which excite them. Holidays, family and future plans out, culture, film and revolution in!

Whitgift School whitgift.co.uk

Further reading: Foreign languages, the state of play