Learning Languages in the UK

Bonjour!  Je m’appelle Mathieu.  J’apprends le francais, mais c’est difficule parce que j’habite dans Grande-Bretagne.

…And that’s about as much as I can eek out from my limited knowledge of French.  Some of that was even possibly wrong.  What I tried to say was: “Hello!  I am called Mathew.  I am learning French, but this is difficult because I live in Britain.”  That’s poorly expressed, but my point was that our education system in this country leaves us at a disadvantage for learning languages because we start so late.  I first began learning French in school at the age of 10, years later than children learn a second language in other countries, and continued until achieving a standard grade at the age of 15.  It stopped being compulsory when I was 13, giving me a mere four years of compulsory tuition.  Two of these years, in primary school, consisted of just one hour a week.

Is it any wonder that our country is so monolingual?  This was particularly driven home during various pen-pal projects set up – across Norway, Sweden, France and Italy, if memory serves – when they would boast of fluency in their native language, English, and also a third language.  We always conversed in English, of course, but how I envied them.

If I’m so desperate to learn another language why did I drop French at school, you might ask?  I could have continued it to Higher level and even Advanced Higher level, with the opportunity for a school trip to Nice.  In retrospect I regret not continuing with it but at the time it had become so much of a chore.  Because we’d started so late and so slowly, by the time we really began gaining momentum our natural ability to pick up languages had been compromised.  I read once that this ability declines rapidly after the age of 11 or so.

Also, I really didn’t enjoy the pressures placed upon us by the constant preparation for exams.  Learning languages should be a fun, fulfilling process, and while our exceptionally motivational teacher did make the class more bearable than it might otherwise have been, the system really made me tire of the subject.  Assignments consisted of learning pages of speeches or questions/answers I didn’t understand – something which would be dull even in English; of straining to catch words on old tapes then being marked 25% again and again; of racing the clock to get enough words translated to make sense of a document.  It’s a wonder I ever managed to scrape a ‘1’ (Standard Grade equivalent to an ‘A’).

Since dropping the subject I have discovered the website Duolingo, which has rekindled my desire to learn French.  In the last 6 months I’ve been hacking my way through it, kept interested by its fun, game-like nature while immersing myself in the language through repetition which never becomes dull.  Things are making sense now, connections forging, which I never realised while studying the language at school.  I can now conjugate verbs and ask questions with ease, for instance, and I’m sure once I progress onto complicated tenses I’ll have similar epiphanies.  It really is a wonderful website.  To compliment this new régimen, I’ve been reading articles on Le Monde‘s website – a remarkably good source of news in general, and available in print within the UK – and watching live streaming of France 24.  Every now and then I’ll absorb the meaning of a phrase without needing to translate it, which is a wonderful feeling.

In summary, I do think that learning languages earlier, perhaps from the age of 7 or 8 – and far more frequently than one lesson a week – should be included in the curriculum for primary schools.  As it is now, my own experiences have convinced me that unless you’re given this early advantage, school really isn’t the most conducive environment to learning languages.

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5 thoughts on “Learning Languages in the UK

  1. I agree with what you say, with the proviso the earlier the better.
    I learned German at school and did two years of French.
    After that I studied Italian for a while but the teacher (Signor Martini, believe it or not)
    kept complaining that I spoke Italian like a Spaniard, so I changed to Spanish
    and got on much better. Now I’m learning Swedish.

    • That’s interesting! Perhaps people naturally find some accents easier than other? I’ve always suspected I would find the harsher-spoken languages easier, like German, which will be curious to examine when I one day plan to attempt learning it.

  2. Couldn’t agree with you more, Matthew, language learning should be fun and not a chore. I’m hoping that schools will find a way to have kids learn a language earlier and a way to make it cool and fun to do. Duolingo is definitely doing something right. I’m using it to learn Portuguese, which is sort of hard for me because I know French, Italian & Spanish (all at different levels) and that puts me in danger of interference from these languages. What I like about Duolingo is that you hear, speak, read/see, and write. It’s good to use all four skills. The other crucial element is that one should develop a “habit” of learning and using the new language. And, it doesn’t matter how small the habit is. At the moment I’m (slowly!) barreling though all the Harry Potter books in French (presently on book 3). Those would take your French to quite another level. Good luck!

    • Gosh, that’s a lot! I’ve sometimes worried about that happening – does interference happen often? I guess each language has its own sound and style so you can generally distinguish them from each other. Yes, I agree! Although I find it’s weakest for speaking, since you only really have quite a flawed repetition software; you’re never expected to respond to statements in French like you would a real conversation. But even so, it’s still an impressive site.

      • Some people say that – if you’re learning more than one foreign language (in sequence) – the language you learned before the one you’re learning now is going to interfere the most. And yes, I agree with you, getting from practicing phrases to having real conversations is a big jump. I’m still trying to figure that one out. I think once you’ve mastered the basics, i.e. you’ve figured out how language works in context, the best thing to do is start reading a lot, books that have everyday language and contain a lot of conversations (detective novels are good), and watching TV series, maybe even with captions in the foreign language. You’ll probably get those easily in Britain.

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