Studying a modern language is not ‘outdated’

‘So, are you going to be a French teacher?’

If you’re a modern languages student currently revising for your exams, Conservative former education secretary Lord Baker’s recent comments will not make for happy reading.

Whilst you sit, slouched over your grammar books, and memorising your subjunctive triggers, allow me to sum it all up for you. He has suggested that mandating that students take a foreign language GCSE equates to a failure to prepare for the “digital revolution”. He suggests that studying a modern language is outdated, and that pupils ought to be able to study another practical or technical subject instead. He recommend that at least half ought to take Computer Science at GCSE.

Quelle surprise.

For people telling you your second/third/fourth language is useless is hardly revolutionary though, is it? Unlike a degree in medicine or law, people do not always see the point in dedicating your time to learning a language. It’s not vocational, not is it perceived as especially academically “challenging”, like the sciences or maths.

Yeah going to Paris SUCKS

Yeah going to Paris SUCKS

Whilst we, the humble mod lang students,  spend our days memorising syntactical nuances, studying European literature, and trying to refine our accents, it sometimes seems as if the world thinks we spend four years in university chatting and drinking espressos.

This could not be more removed from the truth. Bear with me for uno momemento whilst I toot our own horn, big up the linguists, and dispel a few ideas.

‘So, you’re going to be a teacher?’

It’s an age-old question that we’ve all been asked. If I had a pound for every time someone assumed I was going to be a French teacher, I’d be paying off my student loan already. Teaching is an admirable job that many linguists excel at – however, not every modern languages graduate wants to do it.

Linguists make excellent lawyers, writers, diplomats, politicians, and journalists. The skills required to refine a language and speak it accurately and confidently are vast. It develops a cultural awareness and an emotional sensitivity that can be applied perfectly to so many other professions.

To acquire these skills, you’re forced to be brave, to risk sounding like a fool, and to place yourself firmly outside of your comfort zone. You’re forced to see the world from a different culture’s perspective, to take into account a lifestyle completely alien to your own. In turn, you become incredibly open to other ideas, beliefs, and ideologies. In a world riddled with cultural, political, and religious ignorance, surely this ours is a skill  government ministers should be encouraging alongside technology?

‘Your exam is easy, it’s just a conversation.’

Talking is easy. We do it every single day without stopping to think about how difficult it actually really is. We all did a bit of French or Spanish at school and the chances are, most of us could confidently order “dos cervezas, por favor”. This much is true.

However, in a degree founded on politics, philosophy, and literature, modern languages students are often asked to debate topics that are difficult to discuss in English. We’re talking hour long debates on taxation, racism, capitalism, and extremists. The reality is, the content of a modern languages degree is ever-changing – as it reflects the world in which the languages are spoken. Whilst canonical texts, history, and ideas remain the foundation, the ability to discuss current affairs with conviction and accurate vocabulary is paramount. As a result, students are fonts of knowledge.

‘You’re just doing a language to have a year abroad.’

Okay, we admit it, having to spend a year on the continent is a pretty lovely requirement of a modern languages degree. I mean, who in their right mind would grumble about 12 months eating the best pizza in Italy? A term reading philosophy at the Sorbonne? Oh, dommage.

Nevertheless, beyond the picture-perfect Instagrammable adventures of a year abroad, lies a life changing period that everyone should experience. The cliche of finding oneself is, indeed, cliche for a very good reason.

By living in another country, you see the world differently and it alters the way you look at life. Ask any Erasmus student about their time abroad and seldom will you stumble across one with a bad story, or a warning not to do it.

In the same way that a student of technologies and computer science can develop innovative ideas to transform the way we live our lives, modern languages students have an appreciation of how lives are lived in other countries. In turn, they’re equally as valuable. If anything, one cannot exist successfully without the other.

‘What’s the point? Everyone speaks English anyway.’

This statement is the one that kills me a little inside every time I hear it. Minority languages are traditionally pushed aside as being a ‘waste’ of time and money. However, statistics and trends show that people are increasingly recognising their value. Year on year, more parents in Wales enrol their children in Welsh speaking schools. Nurseries in Cornwall are encouraging children to speak Cornish. Politicians in France are working tirelessly to protect Breton and Corsican.

Why? Because, I hate to state the obvious, but not everyone speaks English. Those who believe that everyone should, in fact, speak English are just ignorant. Furthermore, a language is rich in tradition and history. As a result, a society in which bilingualism is valued is undoubtedly a more tolerant and friendly society.

This can never be a bad thing.

Encouraging children to learn to speak multiple languages does not and should not detract from their ability to develop pioneering technologies and keep up with the modern revolution. If anything, moving away from an education that values languages means our government is putting children at a disadvantage when they face Europeans in job interviews, many of whom speak multiple languages fluently.

The advantages are multiple. Franchement fantastique. Undeniable. So, Lord Baker, dismiss us all you like but we’ve got a killer Instagram, a head full of the world’s best words, and a globe sprinkled with polyglot buddies. Pretty nifty result, if you ask us.

Merci.

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