Catching up with the Continent: A Case for Compulsory Language GCSEs – Labour Article
Learning a language at GCSE is an experience that garners very mixed reviews. For some, it is an enriching experience that shapes an individual’s perception of the world. For others, it is an arduous task and a waste of time. However, at a time where only 32% of young people in Britain can speak a foreign language in comparison to 79% and 90% in France and Germany respectively, it is important to promote the benefits of learning other languages.
Firstly, I have to provide a disclaimer: my experience in this field is very biased. My school made me take two GCSE languages and so I would understand if you think that I’m just trying to make others suffer the way that I did. I assure you, however, that I think that there are genuine and objective merits to English students learning a language other than English at GCSE.
In terms of cognition, significant evidence suggests that learning another language can have a positive impact on mental alertness, empathy, and creativity. Beyond that, language learning has also been linked with improved academic performances in other subjects such as Maths and English. Some evidence also suggests that bilingualism may delay the onset of dementia by as much as four to five years.
Of course, learning a language at GCSE does not simply produce bilingual students. Its aim is to instil an interest in the language in the hopes that students will study it further. But this does not always happen. Many students experience the opposite and become frustrated by learning languages. A quick browse of The Student Room shows just how negative some students are towards GCSE languages.
Perhaps, therefore, there is an issue with the way that languages are taught at GCSE. If learning languages is so widely disliked, then it should be adapted in order to cater to both the sceptics as well as the supporters. For example, one criticism that was noted from The Student Room was that the content that is taught is not particularly useful in real-life situations. If the content was more applicable to those conversing with native speakers, perhaps people would find it more interesting.
Similarly, there needs to be a greater variety of languages on offer to students. Simply offering French, Spanish and Mandarin will often fail to encourage students to be enthusiastic about learning a foreign language because it reinforces the idea that languages should only be learnt for the purposes of career progression. Instead, the focus should be placed on how languages can make you a more well-rounded person and show you a different perspective.
I spoke to my sister about this recently as she had not been required to take a language at GCSE. In hindsight, she wishes she had and now thinks that she most likely would have done if languages were taught differently. Interestingly enough, one language that she would have liked the option of taking was sign language. It goes to show that a variety of options can be attractive.
I’m not expecting every single language to be on offer in every single school. It would be a logistical nightmare and quite impossible. But if schools took the initiative to increase the variety of languages on offer then students could find their niche amongst a host of options. Not only would this satisfy the inherent cognitive benefits of learning languages but would also provide a cohort of young adults with a diverse range of intellectual skills.
This is definitely an area in which English schools can learn from other countries. In Europe, it is not uncommon for students to start learning a foreign language between six and nine years old. In some cases, it can be as low as three years old. Overall, 91% of European students learn English as a second language. Even closer to home, Wales recently introduced the compulsory teaching of first-language Welsh. Even if logistically this seems difficult, the improvement of technology will only continue to make learning languages in schools easier.
I understand why people might not always be supportive of my arguments here; however, I can’t help but feel that the cognitive and intellectual benefits are a huge incentive to making languages compulsory for GCSE students. Fundamentally, I believe that you can’t make children bilingual with a language GCSE, but you can make them want to be if the education inspires them enough.
Written by Senior Labour Writer, Jack Rolfe
Point of Information
Language should be promoted, not forced – A Conservative Response
Disclaimer: I did one language, French at GCSE. However, I can barely remember any of it and has been reduced to a note on my CV.
I agree with my colleague that languages give benefits to the learner other than bilingualism. However, I don’t think that it should be forced upon everyone.
While I can understand the criticism of the content (when will I ever need to know the French word for a tie for example), I believe that language at the GCSE level is to instil a basic understanding of it, should students choose to study it further.
Important aspects of French were taught too, such as grammatical phrasings. The irony is, however, that a quick google search shows a number of articles like this one and this one arguing that the toughening up of GCSEs deter people from picking a foreign language. Yet this is what is needed in order to learn the more beneficial aspects and what makes for competent speakers.
I fully agree that students should be offered a range of more languages, not just European, accounting for logistical challenges of course. My school only offered French when I remember much preferring to learn German. The world is bigger than Europe and our schools must account for this.
I also would like to see sign language offered in schools. That would help deaf people immeasurably. The National Deaf Children’s Society found that 92% of young people thought sign language should be taught in schools. This would help deaf children be more integrated into society and be able to benefit from being a bigger part of it.
However, I don’t think that pupils should be forced to pick a language if they do not want to. Perhaps a language GCSE does not fit with a student’s career path, or perhaps they do not want to learn a language because they would rather do another subject instead. I know in my position if I could I’d rather have done something like Business Studies, which would have been more useful.
What Jack highlights however should be marketed more in order for pupils to better understand the benefits of learning another language instead. Pupils should not be forced into doing so. They should have agency in their education, especially as these GCSEs go on to influence what is done post 16 and post 18. There is only so much that can be taught in a school’s curriculum. There would need to be something that is dropped in order for language to fit in.
To me this is similar to the ‘everyone should code’ argument. Yes, coding does come with benefits, even more so in the digital age. It is the most universal language we have. But ultimately, teaching everyone coding does not benefit everyone.
Before GCSEs, pupils are exposed to a much wider course range before they narrow their choices. I agree that in this stage language should be made compulsory for students to experience what it is like in order for them to make an informed choice for their GCSEs.
However, compelling students to undertake what they do not want to will compromise the benefits. Pupils will not engage fully with the material if they feel like they are being ignored. This might also affect other student’s learning.
Written by Senior Conservative Writer, Kieran Burt
To really learn a language, you have to want to – A Liberal Response
I think that Jack touches on a very important issue here. We Brits are renowned for being both ignorant and lazy when it comes to trying to speak other languages, especially when abroad. So, I am in complete agreement that we need to drastically improve this and get more people speaking other languages. However, I really do not think making language GCSEs compulsory is the way forward.
One of the things I regret most about my school days is not taking French GCSE very seriously. I chose to do it because I thought it would be a ‘sensible’ GCSE to pick and my French skills were infinitely better than my Spanish and German. But I had no strong desire to actually learn to speak French. I was far more concerned with learning the French needed to simply earn marks and had no further interest. Now I realise what a great missed opportunity those French classes were. It is much harder to pick up a language outside of school.
At the end of the day, to learn a new language you must have a desire to do so. Making language GCSEs compulsory does not solve this issue. If anything, it might deter more people from enjoying learning languages. After all, no one likes being told what to do.
For me, I feel that it would be better to start exposing children to languages much younger. As Jack mentions, learning languages before nine is uncommon in the UK. But children’s minds are like sponges and if there is ever a time to learn a language, it would be then. For instance, in London, there is a bilingual nursery that operates in Spanish and English. For the children who go here, learning a new language is effortless.
Of course, this would mean having to employ some primary school teachers/nursery teachers who are able to competently speak another language. But I don’t see this as an impossible task. Ultimately, I do not think making a language GCSE compulsory is the answer. But this does not mean that, as a country, we do not need to improve. On the contrary, we need to get better, but it cannot be forced.
Written by Guest Liberal Writer, Beccy Reeves