The Blog

Headteachers Must Promote Multilingualism in Schools

Mastering several languages makes it possible to get rid of the tyranny of monolingualism in the sense that it does away with the very narrow view of the world whereby language and reality have an unchangeable equivalence.

The European Day of Languages, held annually on 26 September, should be marked as a red-letter day in every school calendar as it reminds us that there are over 6,000 languages and cultures in the world. That means over 6,000 different ways of looking at heaven and earth, social and political relations, love and friendship: in a nutshell, the world in all its complexity. If there is an ultimate human truth, it is likely to be someone with the extraordinary ability to speak all those languages who could find it by making sense of the linguistic mosaic of our planet.

Mastering several languages makes it possible to get rid of the tyranny of monolingualism in the sense that it does away with the very narrow view of the world whereby language and reality have an unchangeable equivalence. Indeed, knowledge of foreign languages offers us unique windows on to previously unknown cultures and beliefs which are bound to be different from our own. To give specific examples, a bilingual child knows that a desk is not a desk but an object with several names in different languages. This is crucial so that, later on in life, he or she can fully appreciate why the Wikipedia entries for Palestine or Gibraltar vary so significantly depending on whether we consult the English, Hebrew, Arabic or Spanish versions.

One of our guiding principles at The British School of Barcelona is to encourage pupils to become global citizens who are self-confident about their opinions and yet flexible enough to bridge the gap between different cultures. This is no empty statement written with marketing aims in mind but a profound belief that imbues everything we do here. We are based in a bilingual Catalan/Spanish part of the country and the language we use for teaching is English. Given that all our children, irrespective of their diverse national origin, are linguistically immersed in English from Early Years onwards, they quickly achieve native-speaker standard. Catalan, Spanish and French are also introduced at different stages as core subjects.

Our approach to language teaching aims to develop the linguistic skills needed for sophisticated communication as well as to provide opportunities for students to gain an insight into contemporary societies around the world. For us it is a moral imperative to spread the foreign word and to do it not just among 'good' linguists, as every child has the right to be helped to break the constraining barriers of monolingualism. No surprise, then, that our Sixth Formers apply for universities in Spain, the UK, the US and a range of other countries. We feel particularly proud of this, as it means that they have transcended old national boundaries and see the world as their home.

Of course, languages are crucial for career progression as we live in a global economy and large multinational companies prefer to employ graduates who have spent some time abroad. This is one of the reasons why modern linguists, of whom there is a chronic shortage in the UK and Spain, can often expect to earn at least 10% more than their monolingual peers. Languages are also important for travel, whether we are talking about holidays, Gap Year plans or work placement schemes for pupils in Years 12-13.

However, it is important to insist that learning languages is a must which goes beyond practical considerations. If Northern Europeans tend to imagine Death as a Grim Reaper, the equivalent noun is feminine in Romance languages so we personify it as a welcoming, motherly matron. Japanese uses the same adjective to describe the colour of cloudless skies and that of the 'go' signal in traffic lights. At the top of the cultural scale, surely Cervantes, Racine, Goethe, Dante, March, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and the authors of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature have something unique to contribute to our understanding of the human soul.

Headteachers must show leadership in relation to modern foreign languages. Every school is different and thus there are as many solutions as there are educational centres. In some cases, schools could and should become bilingual (and bicultural) or even trilingual (and tricultural). Other centres might prefer to introduce curricular incentives and constraints to ensure every child learns at least one or two foreign languages to a good level. At times, it might be advisable to opt for a mixed economy whereby some subjects are taught in the mother tongue while others are studied through the medium of a foreign language.

Whatever the solution might be, educational leaders cannot afford to wait until politicians change national legislation on languages. Heads must take positive steps to make sure we avoid condemning the children in our care to a culturally deprived insular future, as the complex prism of human truth has over 6,000 sides.