The Importance Of Young People Studying Languages

29/08/2017 15:07

Though English is my native language, I speak and read some Swedish every day to my young daughter.

I do this not just because I have a passion for Swedish language and literature, but also because I know how useful language skills are.

So I was shocked and disappointed last week to read a ridiculous article by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, claiming that there is no reason to learn languages. He wrote, among other ignorant things, "Like the current zombie cult of maths, languages are beloved of reactionary educators for one reason: they are easy to test, quantify and regiment."

Of course, there's the obvious point that languages are in fact not easy to test, but besides that, languages are important to learn for many reasons.

For example:

--languages are fascinating in and of themselves, and studying them is fun, and why shouldn't pupils have a chance to study interesting subjects?

--learning languages is good for your brain, and evidence suggests that people who are bi- or multilingual are less likely to get dementia.

--learning other languages helps you understand, write, and speak your native tongue better; communication is a key skill in most careers. I've been surprised how often I have to teach native English-speakers to write a sentence that actually makes sense, but then not surprised to learn that they can't even have a simple conversation in another tongue.

--learning other languages helps you understand other people/cultures/histories, and in this time of increased nationalism and historical myopia, we need all the bridge-building we can get. We want future generations to turn outward, not ever further inward. Jenkins writes that good teachers need to expose students to the "glories and horrors of Europe's history", and languages are in fact a part of that (and not just Europe, but all of the world).

--learning languages is respectful; Jenkins' piece smacks of Anglocentrism, and the way many native English-speakers travel the world, assuming everyone does and should speak English, without bothering to learn even a few key phrases in the language of their host nation. Let's try to lose that arrogance.

--speaking another language allows you access to other literatures, ideas, and selves. I love the way I'm subtly different depending on which language I'm speaking, and I feel this gives me a different insight into the world.

--languages can help you with a future career (and no, translation isn't simply computerised, despite what Jenkins writes; it is a highly skilled craft, and computer tools can only help with some parts of some types of texts. Also, there are many other jobs that require knowledge of a language.).

Students should definitely learn languages, for these and other reasons. When Jenkins says students "are not stupid" and only want to learn "relevant" subjects, he is assuming languages aren't relevant, when they so clearly are. Also, frankly, young people don't always understand what is best for them and what knowledge they might need in the future, so even if they did think languages aren't relevant, they aren't necessarily the best-placed folks to make that decision.

The one thing I agree with Jenkins about is when he writes about the danger of exams: "It is the greatest of political fallacies, to make what is measurable important, not what is important measurable." (Though I don't agree that everything important needs to be measurable.) Indeed, what should not happen in schools is the constant testing. Research shows that testing is pretty useless, doesn't accurately reflect people's skills or knowledge, can't predict their futures, and just causes stress as well as making education less creative. Exams are what should change, not the study of languages!

Jenkins says to "ignore the panic"; well, this would be easier without all the pressure placed on young people by exams. Teach students languages along with all the other important and interesting subjects (including the arts), and allow them to be guided by curiosity and compassion, not by stress and panic.

I'll keep speaking Swedish at home, and I'll strongly encourage my daughter to study other languages in the future. I think society depends on the knowledge, respect, and openness that the study of languages provides.