Why giving children exposure to a greater variety of languages in schools is crucial to problem solving

“Embracing language learning does not mean simply widening access to modern  European languages”

In 2021, Ofsted published a report into the state of languages in UK schools. It begins with lofty ambition – the second line declares that learning a language is ‘a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures’ – but soon runs aground on the grim statistics of student disengagement, writes Barry Mansfield of Halcyon London International School, Marylebone.

At secondary level, the decline in language learning from a high point in 1997 is precipitous. Between 1992 and 2004, when learning a language to 16 was mandatory, A-level language entries fell by almost 50%; in 2004, studying a language after the age of 14 was made non-statutory, and by 2019 A level entries had halved again. In 2019, only 40% of students chose to study for an EBacc, which requires a second language; of those who had entered subjects in 4 of the 5 required components, 80% were missing the language element.

The failure of the UK educational system to teach languages is long-standing and systemic. The report speaks of students who cannot see the point, of teachers who do not have the skills, and leaders who fail to understand how to implement change. This all might be true, and it has undoubtedly been exacerbated by years of underfunding which have progressively de-skilled and demotivated teachers and school leaders, and lowered ambitions.

What is also apparent, however, is the lack of critical reflection in the report. The casual parsing of statistics hides the truth that essential school structures do not support languages, and this represents a government policy failure over the last 30 years. The report has a myriad of recommendations for the better teaching of languages, and deep-dives into pedagogy and curriculum, but no recognition, anywhere, that this is all futile unless we change the incentives for students to learn and increase the support for schools to invest.

We must be brave enough to say that everyone should study a language until they leave school. This is not simply a transactional arrangement – to study languages because they open professional doors, which they certainly do. This is about recognising that learning languages allows us to access other cultures and understandings about the world. As an IB school, we accept that knowledge and truth might be different in different languages and cultures, and we have intentional curricular programs to explore these ideas. This is a more fundamental, personal, journey, but one that allows us the perspective to reflect on our own assumptions.

Learning languages within the IB allows us to meet the mission of pursuing intercultural understanding and respect. This outward looking mindset is supported by a commensurate allocation of resources to languages – it is often the single most expensive staffing commitment in an IB school, and languages are obvious and visible across the curriculum and the school; they are an essential part of who we are.

Embracing language learning does not mean simply widening access to modern  European languages. Like all IB schools, Halcyon facilitates a huge range of languages on demand, be that Arabic or Japanese or Swahili. Usually, these are made available to support mother-tongue languages other than English, a process which supports learning for students who are not native English speakers, and decentralises English as the dominant language, and culture, in the school. This linguistic breadth provides for a richer, more varied, cultural experience for everyone, and this is central to our identity.

Which brings us to a more obvious, and less comfortable, reason that English-speaking students don’t do languages: for so long, the world has come to us – we believe that everyone else wants to learn English, because that way lies power. While we can acknowledge that being an English speaker still confers enormous social and political capital, the rewards of this imperial legacy should not be a reason to accept our monolingualism, or to continue to expect others to make up for our insularity.

We are still living in the past, and so not meeting the challenges of the new century, let alone thinking about the future. For our students to be better equipped to succeed in the world they need to be better able to understand others. This is not a literal message about language learning; it is recognising that speaking another language opens the possibility of exploring and explaining the world in many different colours. It is a means of making the world a safer and better place for all our children.

About the author: Barry Mansfield is Director of Halcyon London International School, Marylebone.