Alex Rawlings, who won a competition to find Britain's most multi-lingual student in 2011, explains why learning foreign languages is so rewarding, and how his school helped set him on this path.
The UK, my home country, can be a place of great contradictions. We’re famous for being reluctant to speak other languages and indignant about whether they even have a use. And yet, we live in an environment that is brimming with multiple languages and opportunities to speak them.
Growing up in the UK surrounded by languages
As a child, every bus journey inevitably took me on a quick whirl around the planet, with conversations in Spanish, Cantonese, Icelandic, and Urdu going on all around. Walking down the street exposed me to at least five more languages as I cast my eyes over the signs and windows of the different shops. Even just tuning into the radio while I did my homework allowed me to hear another ten or so. Growing up somewhere so strongly influenced by different languages, it was almost impossible for me not to take an interest, fall in love, and then dedicate the rest of my life to them.
School exchanges and other language opportunities
I was fortunate to go to a school with a head teacher who believed in the importance of languages and made them compulsory for all. But it wasn’t just talking about the environment all day in French that lit my spark. So many of the other kids around me came from bilingual backgrounds, boasting Italian, German, French, Dutch, Urdu, Greek, Arabic, Hindi, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Chinese, Polish and Turkish -- just in my year alone. Such diversity fascinated me. I took every opportunity I got to ask people about their languages, and was amazed at how much they wanted to share.
I went on several school exchanges to France and Germany, which were a real game changer for me. I realised there was no other subject I was studying that could be used in this way to travel, have fun, learn, and make such solid friendships with people around the world that would still last to this day. Ultimately, learning in such a hands-on way really helped me decide to continue studying languages at A-Level, and then later at university.
The benefits of studying foreign languages
Studying languages has proved to be so useful in all sorts of unpredictable ways, and that goes for me as well as my peers. At university, I was constantly told by my friends studying science that they regretted dropping languages. They discovered that many lucrative scholarships and job opportunities in industries in Germany and Switzerland were no longer available. But those who had continued studying languages to A-Level were able to pick them back up again. They applied for those positions and are living that life now. You can never predict what the future holds, but you can be sure of one thing: knowing languages is a skill that will never fall out of fashion.
And there are good reasons for that too. Studying languages is about far more than just memorising verb tables, vocab lists, or a five-minute presentation about your hobbies. Languages allow you to connect with other people, hear their views and share their stories, and in this way gain an invaluable insight into the way they think. Truly understanding different cultures is essential for whatever line of work you go into, and yet it is also something we are lacking so desperately in our country as a result of our stubborn monolingualism.
The intrinsic reward of speaking foreign languages
But even more importantly than that, speaking foreign languages gives you an invaluable insight into yourself. By increasing the number of ways in which we can express ourselves with idioms, vocabulary, and grammar, we suddenly find ourselves with a choice, not just about how we speak, but also about how we think. There is no moment more satisfying than when you try to think of a word and can only find one in a foreign language; or when you realise you’re acting on advice you were given in another language; or when you try and fail to tell a joke in English that will forever remain untranslatable from its original tongue. If you know this feeling, I’m sure you will be sitting there and smiling now. If you don’t, you have no idea what amazing adventures await you.
Updated: UK schools, find out how you can apply for a Language Assistant who is a native speaker of French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Italian, Russian or Irish. Applications are still open.
This article was written for International Education Week (IEW), which is celebrated on 17–21 November 2014. During IEW 2014, the British Council is promoting the importance of international exchanges for young people in the UK. The British Council provides a number of opportunities which can start young people off on their international journey.