Until 2005, all but a few students took a language in Key Stage 4. They were given the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills, improve their future prospects and become more open-minded through the study of a foreign language. Since then, the subject has been faltering. The introduction of the EBacc steadied its dramatic decline but now appears to be having less impact on the numbers of pupils taking Languages. Further, the introduction of changes at both Primary and Secondary level (particularly with the new GCSEs) means schools are finding the delivery of Languages a challenge; inadequate curriculum time, non-specialist teachers, budget constraints, staff recruitment and examinations continue to take their toll. This, in addition to our general malaise in terms of speaking a language other than English means we don't perhaps, as a society, support languages as much as we should. For everyone's sake, this must change.
On a positive note, 25% of state schools have changed their provision of language teaching in Key Stage 3 to encourage greater numbers later. However, another 25% have reduced language lesson time in Key Stage 3 to accommodate other subjects. In the final stage of compulsory education, schools remain hindered by the exam system, which demotivates students and teachers with 'widely reported harsh and inconsistent marking'. The new GCSE is more challenging. Although we should always aim for high standards, the more demanding curriculum will not come with greater curriculum time, which could lead to more homework and consequently, more frustrated and disaffected students. This paints a somewhat gloomy picture but we shouldn't be disheartened. Our children's life prospects in the global community are improved dramatically through their knowledge of other languages. Most importantly, languages are fun, something we sometimes forget in the rush towards outstanding exam results.
There's no doubt that the world's getting smaller but that perhaps the differences between people are getting bigger. English isn't the most widely spoken first language but with first, second, even third language speakers combined, it has more speakers than Mandarin. As a consequence, we haven't cultivated a reputation as a nation of linguists and that isn't to our credit. We need foreign language skills now more than ever. Should Brexit negotiations result in our departure from the EU, we will no longer have the opportunity to work as a block. Whatever our feelings towards the referendum, this is an enormously difficult task. We must ask ourselves: are we equipped to handle it? The image of the U.K. as a monoglot nation has numerous disadvantages to us. We may have the resolve but I would argue we lack the linguistic and cultural skills to put ourselves in the best position. To progress, to flourish, we need to welcome the world to us.
Of course having something of another language helps us to enjoy our holidays more (and supports us should we ever find ourselves in trouble) but it's about much more than that. Languages encourage us to communicate; to talk and to listen. Through these skills, we can widen our circle of friendship and explore avenues which would otherwise have been closed to us. And learning a new language can benefit us at any age. Studies have proved that executive control degenerates, but those who speak another language 'outperform monolinguals in executive control tasks into older age'. Nevertheless, the sooner we start to learn, the better. With their energy and natural curiosity, children are accepting of things they encounter which are unfamiliar to them. For students learning languages for the first time, starting from scratch gives them the chance to begin on a level playing field and the opportunity to thrive. They also help improve literacy skills, demonstrating how language is shaped and encourage autonomy and independence, making us more confident. In 'The Foreign-Language Effect', it's suggested that when we think in another language, bias is reduced so it's easier for us to make choices and be more decisive. As two languages compete in our brains, we develop our ability to process information. Further, bilingualism helps develop listening skills and focus, preventing class distractions because of 'better attentional control'.
In UK state schools, 'some 20 per cent of schools now make a language compulsory for all pupils in Key Stage 4', compared to 74 per cent of independent schools but languages shouldn't be the privilege of the few. Beyond giving EAL students the opportunity to shine, they can be hugely advantageous for disadvantaged students. In recent years, disadvantaged pupils have not had the same access to subjects across the curriculum as their peers; the fear of poor grades making their exam entry too risky. However, the enhanced executive control of bilingual children is present in children who come from economically disadvantaged families. Bilingual children who grow up in disadvantaged circumstances outperform 'monolinguals in executive control, despite the presence of environmental conditions that would usually be associated with equivalent or even lower performance', suggesting that having two languages 'might also provide protection against the adverse cognitive effects that are associated with poverty'. Teaching Languages is a relatively low cost way to support disadvantaged children, whilst broadening their cultural horizons. We must work in their best interests and not narrow their field of opportunity.
Every experience we have contributes to our life and the richer that range of experiences, the more we have to learn from and enjoy. Knowing another language helps broaden that range. We must ensure we do not support the idea that other languages are not worth learning because English is so dominant, that it's just too hard to be worth the effort, or that other subjects are 'safer' in terms of exam grades. All children benefit from a broad curriculum, which prepares them for life beyond school. We're a long way off the government's targets for greater inclusion and mustn't stand passively watching the decline of Languages. We must work together to ensure that all children have every opportunity possible to access the world beyond their own.