Languages: a national priority for Brexit

The "national priority" we need to focus on for the UK to compete internationally

The British Council has called for languages to become a "national priority" in the run-up to Brexit after research shows that English youngsters are among the worst in Europe at foreign languages.

Past studies suggest that our young people are lagging far behind their European peers, with many unable to understand more than basic words or phrases and new research confirms that two-thirds of adults (67%) surveyed said that the UK does not encourage enough young people to learn other languages and 63% said schools should dedicate more time to foreign languages.

As adults, the impetus for young people to learn languages from an early age needs to come from us – particularly if we want to ensure a well-developed, useful and vibrant future job market – and just relying on schools to foster both competence and a genuine love of language learning is misplaced.

While every child has the opportunity to learn a language at school, not every child will flourish at learning languages in the school environment and many young people who could have gone on to be very proficient linguists, lose confidence and wrongly label themselves as "no good at languages" because they lack support at crucial points in their learning experience.

The psychological and academic benefits of becoming confident in a language are so immense that many parents choose to invest in their child's future by giving them the opportunity of after school classes to provide the boost they need and encourage a true love of languages.

Around a third of the students at the Marlow Language Centre are under the age of 18 and range from four-year-olds learning to enjoy a new language with songs and games through to teenagers taking additional classes to supplement their school work or prepare for exams.

Giving our children the chance to learn a language, and supporting them as they do, is one of the most important things we can do to support a competent future job market that can hold its own against the rest of the global business world.

The benefits of being able to converse and conduct business internationally in a foreign tongue are obvious but, additionally, language learning comes with a host of other benefits that we need to encourage in the next generation:

Languages help young brains develop

Research shows that learning a language helps a young person's brain develop in a different way to those that don't learn from a young age and affects the way the pathways of their brain are created.

It helps very young children to speak, read, write, listen and think in another way and develop an understanding that there is more than one way to interact with somebody, thereby also increasing their problem-solving skills. Young language learners develop better critical thinking skills, more creativity and enhanced memory.

Additionally, the discipline of learning a language – even when done in a fun way through songs, games and light-hearted lessons – will increase your child's self-confidence, self-esteem, resilience and tolerance.

Reassuringly, learning a language doesn't just help a child's brain develop; it is now also thought to prevent cognitive decline in old age and to protect against the early onset of Alzheimer's.

Languages improve academic performance at school

According to official data, the number of students studying languages to exam level has fallen, with language entries dropping by 5.57% at GCSE and 3.86% at A level between 2015 and 2016.

A lot of our younger students come to the Marlow Language Centre because they want support with their academic performance. Many find they don't learn languages well in a school environment, either because they don't respond well to the teacher's style of tuition or because they are afraid to speak up in class. Some struggle with the pace of lessons without the ability to concentrate on areas of weakness, as they are able to do in the case of personal tuition.

Naturally, tuition out of school can improve a student's academic performance in that language, but learning another language actually increases academic performance in all areas of a child's school work.

Language learning is proven to give children better problem solving skills, better critical thinking skills, more creativity, better flexibility of mind and enhanced memory in addition to better multi-tasking abilities.

According to the University of Maine, studying a foreign language "strongly reinforces the core subject areas of reading, English language literacy, social studies and maths" and helps students "consistently outperform control groups on standardised tests".

Language learning encourages empathy with and awareness of other cultures

One of the things we strive for at the Marlow Language Centre, is to instil a true love of languages in our students and part of that derives from a passion for the culture it comes from.

Learners who study a language with the aim of better understanding a culture, language, and society are more internally motivated than those who study for the sole aim of passing a particular exam or getting acceptable grades at school. Early foreign language study gives children a unique insight into other cultures and helps them to understand the similarities between themselves and "others".

Studies repeatedly show that the awareness of global community can be enhanced when children have the opportunity to get involved with another culture through a foreign language. For some, this gives them the opportunity to immerse themselves in a culture when they travel on holiday or relocate, or for others it's just becoming aware of a different culture through the interaction of our lessons.

Studying a language in depth – and in our lessons we go beyond what you'll find in a textbook – tells you a lot about the society and how the culture works, giving children an understanding, awareness and appreciation of cultures other than their own.

Languages help young people better understand English

It stands to reason that learning another language gives students a good understanding of the foreign tongue, but a less obvious benefit is the increased understanding of English itself.

Learning another language can enhance knowledge of English structure and vocabulary and children who learn foreign languages score higher in English vocabulary and reading skills as well. This is especially true when the foreign language has Latin roots – enhancing a child's understanding of how language itself works and their ability to manipulate language in their thinking and problem solving.

English is a language which has roots in many others so learning a foreign language will often give students an insight into how English developed, where words come from, and how grammatical structures work. For most of us, speaking English is innate – we speak it quite naturally without really knowing why or how we do so – so learning another language actually enhances understanding and study of our own.

Language learning develops confidence

In addition to the academic benefits already mentioned, language learning helps confidence and interpersonal relationships throughout a child's life. The ability to converse with confidence and panache in a foreign language can be an enormous confidence boost for a young person and as a result enhances their self-image, self-esteem and satisfaction at school. Evidence from several studies suggests that language students have a significantly higher self-awareness than non-language learners.

Speaking confidently opens up a whole new world to our children, allowing them to form friendships with people they otherwise wouldn't be able to communicate with and hearing stories they wouldn't normally hear.

We've had students who come to us to learn a specific language because they have a friend who speaks it and they want to be able to communicate in their mother tongue.

There is nothing that demonstrates more self-motivation, determination, self-discipline and the ability to concentrate than learning a language; and with that comes a massive increase in a child's self-esteem – as well as an improvement in their school grades and exam passes which naturally boosts confidence.

A generation of young people who are skilled in languages is vital for the health and wellbeing of the UK economy, for UK commercial competitiveness and for individuals and society at large. The UK still has a long way to go in order to catch up with its European neighbours and international competitors, but instilling a love of language learning in our young people is the first – and most important – step we can take to secure our future place on the global stage.