Learning a Foreign Language | Living North

Learning a Foreign Language


Languages Globe
In an age when English is by far the dominant international language, some struggle to understand the need to teach foreign languages at school. What are the advantages?
'A second language builds a bridge to other cultures and opens the door to friendships across the globe'

‘As a language teacher I am sometimes asked to justify the place of languages in the curriculum in an age when English is a major international language. Many well-known people have given beautifully succinct reasons, here are some of them.

“No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he involuntarily makes himself a great baby – so helpless and so ridiculous.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). Clearly you can travel without knowing the language of the country you are visiting, but how much more will you gain from your visit if you can communicate when you are there?

“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” (Goethe). Since we can seldom learn a second language the same way we learned our first (by listening for 18 months before stringing more than two words together) we have to learn the structures and vocabulary. We have to examine its underbelly and see how it all fits together. 

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his own language, that goes to his heart.” (Nelson Mandela)

“If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.” (Willy Brandt). Consider how Germany’s economy recovered after the battering of two world wars.

For me, it’s all of those reasons plus this: it’s good for the brain. It may even stave off dementia. It’s very satisfying and most of all, it’s fun. If someone learns a language solely so that other people can understand what he has to say, then he hasn’t got the point.’

Nicky Brunger, Head of Modern Languages at The Mount School


‘Learning another language can promote brain growth, boost memory, improve attention span, increase understanding of our own language, stave off cognitive decline and more.

Psycholinguist Frank Smith said, “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”

Language skills are in high demand with employers and speaking a foreign language opens up new and exciting career opportunities. In today’s world, the job market is extremely competitive but language skills can set you apart from other applicants and give you a distinct advantage. 

Learning a language significantly develops key communications skills. The learning process has been shown to develop a number of other skills that are invaluable for your future working life such as negotiating, making decisions and problem solving.

Learning about new cultures and meeting new people who challenge your beliefs and ideas can be extremely rewarding. An understanding of diversity and cultural awareness is also one of the qualities that many top employers look for as it means that you are able to adapt to new situations as well as working well in a team.

Over 70 percent of the world population does not speak English. Being able to communicate with someone in their own language means that they are more likely to want to do business with you and you can gain respect with your international colleagues.

In general terms, the younger someone’s mind is, the easier it is to learn a language. Here at Scarborough College we start teaching languages in the nursery department but also we have the huge advantage that all of our students in sixth form study the International Baccalaureate and a language is an integral part of that.’

Catherine Lucas, Head of Modern Foreign Languages at Scarborough College


‘I have been asked this question many times in my career, and whilst the clichéd answers of “it’s good for holidays” or “you’re more likely to be able to get a job” are true to a certain extent, the advantages are far broader than this. Knowing a language allows you to break down those barriers which can limit you when abroad. 

A tourist with no knowledge of the language might not venture far from their accommodation for lack of confidence whereas someone with even a few hundred words in their vocabulary is much more likely to venture further afield, experiencing new things and getting a better feel for the place.
Working abroad with some grasp of the language, many will find that their time goes more smoothly because they are able to converse with others both inside and outside the workplace. It is therefore a more fulfilling experience.  

Studying a foreign language causes you to think about your own language and you very quickly begin to realise that English has its own idiosyncrasies. This can often lead to a greater awareness of the need to be tolerant when communicating with those for whom English is not a first language.

In addition, I would hope that all language students become aware of the power of words and the need to use them wisely in order to ensure that they do not have unintended consequences. 

To conclude, the advantages of learning a language are gaining the ability to communicate, both in a foreign and in your native language as well as a greater cultural understanding of the world and our place within it.’

Samantha Haslam, Head of Modern Foreign Languages at Bradford Grammar School 


‘In today’s increasingly global world, learning a second language can give your child advantages in their school years and beyond. Early language learning has been tied to higher test scores, better and more advanced reading skills, improved cognitive ability, greater confidence and more.

Young children enjoy learning whilst having fun. Nursery rhymes, silly songs and hand puppets make learning a foreign language both accessible and diverting. The kinaesthetic nature of language learning and the way in which concepts are revisited frequently, often make them accessible to children who sometimes struggle in other subject areas.

Undaunted by making mistakes and trying new vocabulary, young children are uninhibited and eager to see the response of their teachers and peers when trying new skills. A new language is an exciting and empowering experience for children of all ability levels.

A second language builds a bridge to other cultures and opens the door to friendships across the globe. From a young age children accept that bilingualism and multilingualism are normal in our world and that this intertwining of language and culture is to be celebrated. Quite simply, learning languages early in life sets the foundation for a whole world of possibilities.’

Angela Pattinson, Head of Modern Languages at Westville House School

Published in: February 2015

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