Languages: we're learning them in the wrong way

Why communication need no longer be the main focus for language learners.

New Statesman
Paris. Photograph: Getty Images.

Britain doesn’t like learning languages. Year on year the numbers taking languages at school have fallen, leading to Britain regularly being placed at the bottom of European surveys into language proficiency. This year alone, German A-Level takers were down by 14.53 per cent and French learners by 9.9 per cent. This is often explained by citing a lack of motivation for learning foreign languages - it’s because we’re learning them in the wrong way.

Most courses designed to teach a language revolve almost exclusively around communication. Learning French, German or Spanish is said to be beneficial solely because it allows you to get by when speaking to French, German or Spanish people. As such, these courses teach set phrases to help the speaker out in common situations. They essentially make sure you buy your bread from the boulangerie and your train tickets from the gare - perfect for those who are holidaying abroad and want a return ticket to the baker’s.

But for anyone who wants to get to grips with a language properly, this approach is ultimately flawed.  Communication is an important part of language learning – of course it is. But in a world where English is the lingua franca, it should no longer be Britain’s main motive for learning another tongue.

Language is, after all, much more than a communicative tool. French is considered beautiful and important not because it allows you to speak to French people about your pets and hair colour, but rather because of its wealth of literature, its role as the language of diplomacy throughout history, even the way it sounds and flows. If the only thing you learn to say is “J’ai deux frères et j’aime bien jouer au ping pong”, these benefits become severely limited. All language learning has to start somewhere, and this simple vocabulary is more than likely to be sufficient for a long weekend in France.

Teaching primary pupils with the same approach as teaching holidaymakers, however, is bizarre. Yet the syllabus up to GCSE puts all the emphasis on translating banal English phrases into equally banal French, German or Spanish ones. It borders on encouraging pupils to translate word for word and pupils, quite understandably, are bored by this approach.

We need to shift our focus. At the moment, the reason to learn a language is ostensibly to translate your own ideas and experiences. Up to GCSE pupils are encouraged to talk about their own lives, but only by translating English words. This is not the way to spark enthusiasm for foreign cultures, and will usually be greeted with the response “but everyone already speaks English”.  In a way, it’s very Anglo-centric – the focus is on how we can say English things in a different language.

Instead, we ought to learn the joys and peculiarities of another culture, rather than ironing them out. The Germans, for example, use the excellent “Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher” – an instrument designed to help you eat your boiled egg and which literally translates as “Egg-shell-breaking-point-causer” as it causes the egg shell to split in two at its breaking point. Not only is this a great word, but it also highlights the highly logical structure of German, a logic that extends beyond German as a language to other areas of German life and culture. It gives an insight into the German way of thinking.

Similarly, the stereotypical French aversion to English and American intrusion on their culture is demonstrated by the Acadamie Française’s recent decision to ban “le hashtag” in favour of “mot-dièse”. It’s these sorts of peculiarities that we miss out on when simply translate from English as opposed to aiming to learn from other languages.

The merit of languages should be stressed in a more holistic fashion. Whether through literature, film or art, language teaching should focus also on the culture that surrounds a language, on the way that foreign languages differ to English and how this allows for subtle and nuanced distinctions in meaning. To learn a language should be to immerse yourself in a different world and way of life, to view a situation through a completely new lens. Not only will this make learning languages more appealing, it also means that language learners gain a much better understanding of what’s around them, encouraging them to focus on more than the English-speaking world.

Although the ability to communicate is still important, it should be seen as one constituent of language learning. If translating pleasantries into simple language is a learner’s first impression of a language and culture, they are likely to be left disappointed and frustrated. If they are greeted with a new way of understanding, they are likely to be enthused and motivated to continue it further.