By: Keir Pearson
There’s a lot of furore over language teaching at the moment. In general, language instruction has long been undergoing a cutback in favour of ostensibly more “useful” subjects, particularly the sciences. As a young boy at secondary school, I was forced to choose between my two great loves – science and languages. In the end, I was able to pursue both, but it left me with an indelible impression of the critically endangered state of language education in the National Curriculum.
The problems are, to an extent, understandable. When English is the world’s lingua franca, how do you decide what the children are to learn? French and German, for proximity and cultural ties? Mandarin, for its economic usefulness and huge number of native speakers? Spanish, too, for similar reasons? Russian? Compounding this is the prevailing culture in education that seems to prioritize passing exams over developing skills. Measuring linguistic ability is a difficult and subjective thing, compared to which marking a Chemistry paper is comparatively easy. When policy demands results, and when policymakers are obsessed with“usefulness”, languages suffer.
However, I would contest that language education is absolutely critical to a fully rounded education and develops clarity of thought and economy of expression in ways that no other area of study can. I was lucky enough to be able to learn Latin at school. I gained so much edification from it that I took all the way to Oxford, where I read Classics. The gifts that my knowledge of Latin (and Ancient Greek) have given me are immense – access to a vast and mostly untranslated literature and history, improved writing style, the ability to grasp new languages easily. Furthermore, there’s evidence that people who can speak more than one language have higher cognitive performance, communicative sensitivity, and even develop Alzheimer’s later. Clearly, the benefits of language education are not only to provide a certain skill, but also to greatly develop the learner in all areas and widen the scope of their education.
To deprive children of language education, therefore, is really nothing less than harmful. This is where tutoring can come in – to complete, uplift, and enrich the National Curriculum that children will be taught in British schools or in international schools following the British system. A tutor is uniquely placed in that they can not only assist children in areas of difficulty but also push them, expanding their educational horizons further, creating an ever-wider sphere of education, which will stand the student in good stead for exams and beyond. Examiners appreciate sensitive, well thought out work demonstrating a depth of thought that only comes with wide education. Likewise, university admissions, especially at Oxbridge, appreciate language skills, and the attendant breadth they bring. For the government, I would advise greater focus to return to language education in light of all the benefits it brings – for students and parents, pay attention to this often overlooked area of a child’s education.