Why should young people in the UK bother with languages? Secondary-school student Ariella Holdcroft interviewed a diplomat, a journalist, an entrepreneur and others to find out.
For many young people in the UK, learning another language is not a priority – only nine per cent of teenagers progressed beyond a basic level in the language they were learning in 2013. But with so many people around the globe already speaking English, I wanted to know if learning another language is really worth it. Here's what I found out from some people who would know.
Carolyn Davidson – British Ambassador to Honduras
I knew I wanted to learn foreign languages when I heard my French teacher speak with such confidence and panache, and I thought that’s what I want to do. I did French and German at A-level, and then went on to study them at university. After I joined the Foreign Office, I studied Japanese full-time for two years and I also learned a bit of Thai when I lived in Bangkok. Then I learned Slovak, and Spanish due to my placement in Southern America.
Though useful in any path in life, languages are particularly valuable if you wish to work overseas. When you study a language in depth, it tells you a lot about the culture and how the society works. Particularly for a diplomat, understanding the country in which you are working is essential to forming good relations with its residents.
Alex Rawlings – teacher and (formerly) UK's most multilingual student
I grew up in London where you can hear dozens of languages spoken every single day. I found it absolutely fascinating. At home, I learned English and Greek from my mum; she was also very keen for me to learn French, so I went to after-school French classes from a very young age. I then began learning German, Latin, French, Spanish and Ancient Greek in school. At the age of 14, I started learning Dutch, followed by Afrikaans, then Catalan and Italian. Eventually, I studied Hebrew and Russian at university, as well as German. Following that, I learned Yiddish and Serbian, then Hungarian and Portuguese.
The ability to speak a lot of different languages opens a whole new world that you never realised was there before. You can form friendships with people you otherwise wouldn't be able to communicate with; you can hear stories that you'd otherwise never get to hear. And it gives you the opportunity to work with people overseas and even with people within your own country who speak different languages.
I think we've failed young people who love languages. We haven't put the case to them that it doesn't matter what they want to do in life, and what their strengths and weaknesses are, and that learning a foreign language can only be a positive. There is nothing that demonstrates more self-discipline, determination, study skills and the ability to concentrate than learning a language.
Rosie Goldsmith – journalist, broadcaster and media consultant
Languages have totally shaped my life; they have been important for me from the moment I was aware of them. My parents travelled a lot and I seem to have a knack of picking up, and being able to imitate languages, which may be due to the fact that I’m quite musical as well. I have always related languages with everything, from music and history to culture and travel.
I lived and studied abroad before becoming a journalist for the BBC for 20 years as a reporter and presenter. I was able to use, and I am still able to use, languages every day of my life.
There is a moment with language learning where you suddenly get it. We must all be encouraged to keep going up to that point. A vital step is to see the mistakes we make when we speak a modern foreign language as a positive thing that represents progress and learning.
In the UK, we’re lucky to have English as our first language, but I do think that this inclines us to shut ourselves off. I believe we have to be part of a wider international culture in order to be better educated, more civilised, and have better businesses and economies.
Steve Eadon – language co-ordinator at Arsenal football club
Through my years of language learning, I realised that perseverance is crucial. Many people give up too easily after not being a fluent speaker after only three years of learning. I was a reluctant language learner; my peers and I both didn’t see learning a language as ‘cool’ and my school’s senior leadership team did not encourage us to pick it as an A-level option if we were not assured of an A grade on results day. Despite this, I completed my German A-level during my lunch breaks and progressed to university.
At university, I did European studies and spent the third year abroad working at a university in Germany. This greatly improved my German skills and confidence. For the remainder of the year, I lived in Madrid and, although I didn’t speak as much Spanish as I’d have liked, the skills I developed from living and working abroad were invaluable.
Learning a language has given me many opportunities: I met my fiancée in my university Spanish class; I have many friends in Germany, and my job here at Arsenal wouldn’t have been available to me. That's why I can safely say, looking back after these years, that all those lunchtime German lessons were worth it.
Lizzie Fane – entrepreneur and founder of ThirdYearAbroad.com
I've always been interested in languages. In school, I learned French, Italian and Latin; after school, I learned Mandarin for a year. My degree course was Italian joined with art history with a minor in French and a minor in Mandarin.
In my third year at university, I got to study abroad, living in Italy for 15 months. I was given huge amounts of freedom but also the responsibility that comes with it. The experience undoubtedly helped me prepare for running a business later on.
When you’re marketing to different groups in different countries, you need to have the cultural knowledge to be able to sell your product to them, to gain their trust and to form relationships. A young person with language abilities and experience and knowledge of social media can really help a company go global.
Jonathan Dunn – British Consul-General, Rio de Janeiro
What drew me to languages was the intellectual challenge, the opportunity to talk to people in their own language. It probably started as a bit of a drag at school, but I quickly saw it as something that had value.
I learned French and Russian in school, continuing with French in sixth form, and did a couple of modules in French at university. I then learned Vietnamese for my job in Vietnam, which involved full-time language training at the Foreign Office. Since then, I’ve learned Portuguese for my job in Brazil.
Languages have been essential in my job; they are vital to understanding and engaging the people of a country. You can’t do that with somebody translating for you – you have to do it yourself. I love that point when you get to a certain level of confidence and skill in a language where you can fit into the culture and see the way people think.
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