Languages in schools

According to an article I found today in The Telegraph, the British government have decided to tinker with the education system yet again and plan to reintroduce compulsory foreign languages in secondary schools up to the add of 16. Their plan is to make languages one of five core subjects along with English, mathematics, a science and one of the humanities.

I understand from friends who work in education that such reforms and changes rarely have much time to settle before the next lot come along. It’s only six years since the requirement for languages in secondary schools was dropped, for example.

Do you think it’s a good idea to make the study of languages compulsory in schools?

8 thoughts on “Languages in schools

  1. I can’t imagine many of the people here will disagree with language study, but I do have a couple of tangential observations that I hope will find some footing:

    (1) In general, I wish we could bury the term “foreign language.” Certainly, the argument can be made that some languages are exterior to a country — but drilling down on which ones is a pretty muddy (and politically risky) business. In the U.S., Spanish (Puerto Rico), French (southern Louisiana), German (Pennsylvania), Hawai’ian, Inuktitut, and various other Native American languages predate the U.S. expansion into their areas, and cannot validly be thought of as “foreign.” In the U.K. this is true of Welsh, Irish, Scots, and Manx, among others.

    (2) I wish that Sign Language were required to be on the curriculum of every school. While I am delighted to have studied Spanish because it opens new worlds to me as an American, most Spanish speakers in the U.S. also learn English. But this is an option that the deaf simply do not have in terms of real-time communication, and making Sign Language the starting point for non-English study furthers two goals (general language education and equality for the deaf), while establishing a curriculum in spoken languages furthers only one.

  2. I’m not sure if I think it’s a good thing or not.

    Thanks to the large decline in the number of people doing languages while languages have been optional, there are probably even fewer good language teachers available. I was at school while languages were still compulsory and it was bad enough then. The majority of schools in my area only offered French and my teacher was absolutely appalling. Even many years later I have no desire to learn French again.

    If schools are only teaching languages to keep their league table scores high, then their only goal to get as many people to pass the test as possible. People should be taught languages because languages are fun, interesting and useful, not simply so that the school can claim that it’s superior to the other school down the road.

  3. Definitely compulsory. When I was in high school (in Arizona), I believe they required two years of language study, whereas in middle school it was elective. Granted, two years of language study in a high school environment never amounted to much in terms of fluency, but it at least dismantled a lot of the misconceptions about how difficult it is to study a language, etc., and eventually led the students to be a little less Americentric in their attitude toward the rest of the world. Hell, math, science, and physical education are mandatory — might as well throw some language in there as well.

    @JoeInAtlanta – Joe, regarding your second point, I’d be curious as to whether or not the deaf community would agree with this. There is quite a bit of culture that comes with being deaf, a big part of which are conversational taboos. With widespread study of sign language, I can only imagine the kind of offensive crap hearing folks would get themselves into, not the least of which being “eavesdropping” on other people’s conversations, which is a serious no-no in the deaf community.

  4. Now’s the time to give serious attention to Esperanto as well.

    Five British schools have introduced Esperanto in order to test its propaedeutic values.

    The pilot project is being monitored by the University of Manchester and the initial encouraging results can be seen at,%20S2L%20Phase%201.pdf

    The study course is now receiving 120,000 hits per month. That can’t be bad 🙂

  5. For several decades, English, French, and German were compulsory subjects in secondary schools here in Holland. (Besides Dutch, of course.) For the highlest level (VWO), you got those for four years, then the next two exam years, Dutch and English are compulsory. In one form of VWO education, Latin was also compulsory for two years.

    Holland is a small country, lots of people around us but still nearby speak a different language. That’s different from the UK or USA, for example. These days, Spanish is becoming more popular.

    My son is attending an international school here in Holland. I don’t know if it’s compulsoray in the international Middle Years Program version of the bi-lingual stream he is in, but besides English and Dutch, he has Spanish, French (started in grade 8), and Latin.

    I think it is a good idea to make those subjects compulsory at least for a few years.

    I like the ideas of including Sign Language or giving Esperanto another chance! (But maybe a slightly re-designed version, without the accents, to make it typable on all keyboards… 😉 )

  6. When i was in school Welsh was compulsory to the age of 16. i tried French too but had to leave the class ater almost an academic year, not sure that the teacher was really all that good.
    Welsh was available at three levels – first language and two learner categories. If you were in the last category the class constantly had new pupils arriving with no welsh whatsoever – maybe no desire to be in school. So what did we learn? basically nothing in the last two years.
    conclusion: if a language is compulsory you have to consider what to do when new pupils arrive who have studied a language other than the ones the school provides. What about a conversational version for those that can’t deal with the more formal examination approach – but don’t know how that works with exams
    Really just start another language straight away in primary – has been proved to work. Somewhere i have to link in guardian newspaper about a bilingual school in london: french english. They don’t just teach the language, the whole school is bilingual.Mind you a LOT of primary education in Wales is Welsh til 7, or compulsory as a second language. Do you teach say French alongside it? the shock of spelling in English at aged 7 for even children from english speaking homes is quite big!

    I’d loved to have learnt British Sign language.

    there are keyboard commands for most accents. Though admit it annoying typing Welsh occasionally.

  7. Yes, it should be compulsory. It should be compulsory to be fluent in AT LEAST one foreign language, it should be a requirement that EVERYONE has to meet to be able to get a high school diploma. Our education system (U.S.) sucks, and from what I hear the British one isn’t that much better, so I really doubt you’re going to see anything like this soon, but there you have my opinion on the matter.


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