Back to School: Celebrating Languages Week

If you work with children, you might have noticed there was a big emphasis on language learning last week. Monday, 26th September marked the annual European Day of Languages (our client Memrise definitely didn’t let that one slide), and many schools across the country decided to turn the day into a week of linguistic festivities.

As a languages graduate, I may be slightly biased, but I truly believe experiencing different cultures and tongues is one of the most valuable lessons you can learn in life. And in the shadow of an imminent Brexit, it’s the kind of vital skill that can bring us together with our neighbours and make the UK less insular. Yet this year we saw another huge slump in entries to A-level French (-6.4%), German (-4.2%) and Spanish (-2.7%), marking the continuing decline of language learning across the nation.

So last Friday, I was packing up my bag and heading back to school to see if I could pique current pupils’ interest with something a little more unusual as part of The PHA Group’s Development Day scheme – Japanese.

My stage was The St Lawrence Academy in Scunthorpe, and I was armed with only a PowerPoint presentation and my wits to keep 140 children aged 11-15 entertained – luckily, the exoticism of Japan did a lot of the groundwork!

We went through the basics – greetings, numbers and self-introductions (not to mention a few rounds of bingo!) – but perhaps the most important message I, along with the staff at the school, wanted to impart was about what Japan is like as a place, and what the Japanese are like as a people.

Generally speaking, people don’t learn languages for the sake of learning itself – they do so because they want to understand something or someone – so a large part of each lesson was focused on the why. Why should I care? Why do I need Japanese or any other language for that matter? Why Japan?

It’s not the first time I’ve taught a taster session – as part of the Japan Foundation’s JTS Programme, I’ve visited several schools over the past few years – but it always strikes me how challenging a role teachers have, particularly in languages. They’re tasked with inspiring the next generation to pursue knowledge where the application or transferability isn’t immediately apparent, and the rewards in a distant hypothetical future.

So it was fantastic to see a Languages Department truly thriving despite the current political and educational backdrop, and especially in the Yorkshire & Humberside region, where only 45 percent of students took a language GCSE in 2015 (compared to 64 percent in inner London). When I arrived, the department was looking for a ‘Languages Assistant’ – a student who would attend open evenings as a languages advocate, stay behind during breaks and after school to help prepare collateral, and generally help rally the linguist troops – a big responsibility and a lot of extra work, but they’d already had 66 applications.

But we’ll need many more schools like The St Lawrence Academy if we’re to turn the tides, and more professionals willing to show pupils where a degree in languages can take them if we don’t want the UK to retreat from the global arena.

If you want to volunteer, why not get in touch with a local school? Or join a group like the Japan Foundation, the Polish British Integration Centre, Caabu or the catchall Association for Language Learning?

Get in touch with the team