Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why learning languages matters

This is a really thoughtful blog post worth reading.


By Dr Shirley Lawes | Battle of Ideas Blog
Friday, 19 November 2010

Ask most adults if they think that being able to speak another language is a good thing and they will invariably answer ‘Yes’ and then add, ‘ but I was useless at it at school’. Ask them why it’s a good thing, and they start to flounder. Vague answers about how the economy needs people who speak other languages is the most common response, followed by how useful it is to be able to “get by” on holiday abroad. That’s a fair enough response from the general public, but when the needs of the economy and tourism are the reasons policy-makers, teachers and government give to justify the importance of foreign language learning, then you know we’re in trouble.

Why? Instrumental arguments for learning languages are problematic because they are restrictive and reductive. They are, however, prevalent and difficult to challenge in the present climate where education has come to be seen in almost entirely instrumental terms. We no longer talk about a body of subject knowledge to be transmitted, but of skills to be acquired and applied. The aims and purposes of education now serve directly the perceived needs of society and the economy rather than being seen as a good in itself concerned with the intellectual development of the individual. No longer do we see any intrinsic value in education; ‘useful’ knowledge is all that counts.

From this perspective, the study of other languages becomes a marginal pursuit, at a time when English is the global language of business. But if we take the view that foreign languages have a broader cultural and intellectual role to play both in education and society, as well as contributing to the personal enrichment of the individual, then the position of the English language takes on a relative rather than dominant position.

Defences of foreign languages as a field of knowledge in its own terms are few and far between at the present time. Even those who recognise the contribution of foreign languages to the all-round education and personal development of individuals and the subject’s potential for broadening the horizons of young people, often still feel the need to justify their arguments in instrumental and functional terms. Perhaps what such arguments miss is to recognise what is unique about foreign language learning. The study of a foreign language has a unique transformational capacity that differentiates it from other subject disciplines in the potential that knowledge of foreign languages has of opening individuals up to human culture. As the veteran language teacher and academic, Eric Hawkins once wrote, the study of foreign languages serves to, ‘emancipate the learner from parochialism’.

Foreign languages have the unique potential of breaking down barriers between people and countries and promoting a sense of universalism in an individualised world. This is at the heart of what makes the study of foreign languages unique and that is why I believe that they should be an important part of every young person’s education throughout their schooling. Never mind the needs of the economy.

1 comment:

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