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Learning the lingo

Sarah Kingsley Sarah Kingsley | 14:21 UK time, Tuesday, 3 May 2011

As a nation we have a somewhat laissez-faire attitude to learning languages. But does it really matter, when so many other people throughout the world speak English? In fact, it’s not as many as we might think. According to the National Centre for Languages (CiLT), 75% of the world’s population doesn’t speak any English and only 6% speak it as a first language. We live in a multilingual, multicultural world and are in danger of getting left behind if we don’t improve our language skills. 

It doesn’t help that we have been getting mixed messages about language learning in schools in recent years. In 2004, modern languages were dropped as a compulsory subject for 14-16 year olds, resulting in decline in students taking a language GCSE – down by a third in the past six years. Now languages are back on the agenda with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate. From this year, schools are measured on the number of pupils achieving A-C grade GCSEs in five core subjects: English, Maths, Science, a humanities subject and a language.

Happy little French boy with various classmates in background @ michaeljung - Fotolia.com

Although I’m not a natural linguist, French is one of the few subjects I learnt at school that I have repeatedly used throughout my adult life. Much to my children’s embarrassment, I always try to speak it when we go to France, although my accent leaves a lot to be desired. 

Perhaps I should have started when I was much younger as there is evidence that children pick up languages more easily when they are young, are less self-conscious and don’t mind repeating or even singing phrases. The previous government introduced a policy which came into force last year requiring primary schools to teach a second language from aged seven. The BBC Primary Languages site currently offers French, Spanish and Mandarin to help support this development. As with the rest of the national curriculum, this policy is under review by the present government but I hope it continues.

Of course, a half hour lesson each week isn’t going to make my eight year old daughter fluent in French. Rather, it’s an opportunity to enthuse children about different languages and cultures as well as familiarising them with pronunciation. When my daughter does start languages in earnest at secondary school she will find it easier, having already mastered the sounds and intonations.

Research shows that learning another language also helps to enhance mental development and improve performance in other subjects such as maths. Those with language skills stand out from the crowd when applying to university – many require pupils to have a language GCSE - plus certain degree courses can now be studied abroad or are combined with a language. In addition, speaking other languages is an important business skill for the future and opens doors for more exciting job opportunities.

Parents can help support their child’s language learning in many ways, even if they don’t speak a second language themselves. The BBC Schools website has online games and resources and many language courses are available online or from bookshops and libraries. Young children often enjoy language music CDs or will benefit from programmes such as CBeebies’ Lingo Show. Many schools and local authorities run out-of-school language clubs which offer a fun approach to learning with art, cookery and games. Pen pals, exchange visits and holidays abroad all help too. And remember, whilst it’s beneficial to learn a second language at a young age, it’s never too late to learn!   

Sarah Kingsley is a freelance writer and a member of the BBC Parent Panel.


  • Comment number 1.

    In Wales, we have long known and seen the benefits of learning more than one language; the Welsh language is compulsory up to KS4, and children attending Welsh language schools are already bilingual by the time they reach secondary school and start learning their 'third' language (e.g. French).

  • Comment number 2.

    Since the amount of time needed to attain a usable degree of competence in an ethnic language is considerable (and available curriculum time is limited), and since, as you state, second language learning improves performance in other subjects (including English grammar and general language awareness), surely it makes sense to investigate the early introduction of an easy, non-ethnic "apprentice language" (before serious study of an ethnic language begins), such as is already envisaged in the U.K. Springboard to Languages programme?:


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