Languages: we're learning them in the wrong way

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

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. 

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The UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.