Looking after the kids: Rod MacKinnon
Y OU may or may not have enjoyed the football, but for me one of the positive things to have come out of the World Cup extravaganza was the Arsenal Football Club World Cup song. Celebrating the diversity of the nations that united in South Africa, it involved 250 British students of German, French, Spanish and Portuguese who together made a multi-lingual music video to encourage all children to learn a foreign language.
Sadly, these days it's getting increasingly difficult to find 250 students of foreign languages in one place. As a nation we are lamentable when it comes to learning languages and changes in the National Curriculum have institutionalised this tendency. Allowing schools to make the study of any language optional for our children over the age of fourteen was a clear backward step.
The previous Government set targets of "between 50 per cent and 90 per cent" for pupils studying a modern language at GCSE. Last summer only 44 per cent did so. As a result there are fewer studying languages at A-level, and we are likely to see the downward trends for both age groups when GCSE and A-level results are published in August. Just last month, The Times claimed that our pitiful reputation for languages has left British graduates losing out.
Some would say "why bother" when so many in the world speak English, but learning languages is not just about communicating with other people, valuable and commendable as that single objective is. The failure to teach languages has more profound consequences; it represents a failure to unlock a rich treasure trove of new and diverse cultures and outlooks. How well we understand each other's cultures is vitally important, it is also just so interesting and life enhancing.
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And it's not our children who are to blame. There is no evidence that pupils don't want to learn languages, given the motivation and the opportunity. My experience is of increasing interest amongst students in my school. Many study two foreign languages at GCSE.
Modern languages are 21st century subjects. They help our children appreciate diversity and become sensitive about the issues involved with other cultures. By learning them, young people may fit more easily into new environments or simply enjoy a better understanding of different literatures, histories, art and music; languages present a life-enriching opportunity.
Italian film director Federico Fellini captured it perfectly when he said "a different language is a different vision of life". If we want to be progressive educators, we need to stand up for French, Spanish, Russian and German. We should demand all our children learn languages, one way we can better learn from each other.
● Rod MacKinnon is headmaster of Bristol Grammar School