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. 

Paris. Photograph: Getty Images.
The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.