Shambles: Foreign Languages in UK Schools

We, collectively in the UK, don’t seem to deem it as necessary to learn foreign languages. It’s a modern form of imperialism.

“Learning foreign languages in school was the only thing that kept me going.” That there is one of my frequently employed quotes whenever I’m discussing my school life. It’s just a shame, therefore, that the teaching of foreign languages in the UK is utterly lacklustre.

We should start at the beginning: A computer program called ‘Rigolo’. A 2D-animated app designed for primary school pupils to learn the basics of French – it used cartoon members of a family, who inexplicably had a pet dragon, peppered with catchy tunes to try and impart some vocab to these 10/11 year old kids. For me personally, and I think I speak for all my peers here, it was awful and didn’t function a single bit. It was operated by teachers who had no desire to teach French, or knowledge thereof, and therefore what resulted was a stale half an hour, on a Friday afternoon, of watching funny little cartoons flit about on an interactive whiteboard. I didn’t learn any French, although I still remember part of a song where the red-headed kid commanded you to listen to him and his tiny guitar.

Rigolo, Oxford University Press

I don’t blame the teachers for this situation, I think primary school teachers have a very difficult job as it is. The problem goes deeper than that. We, collectively in the UK, don’t seem to deem it as necessary to learn foreign languages. It’s a modern form of imperialism. Cultural imperialism, where we British believe that “Well, everyone speaks English anyway.” And to an extent, that is true, but it doesn’t imply that we should stop learning other tongues. In public, with people my own age here in Vienna, I hardly have to speak any German at all. It’s a great shame if you ask me.

No other country takes foreign language learning for granted quite like the UK. For example, in my last 2 years of compulsory education one of my closest friends was a Spanish guy named Nic (hi Nic if you’re reading), where one time he told me that in Spanish schools they begin teaching English at the age of 3 – long before mastery even of the mother tongue. On the other hand, in England, the serious teaching of foreign languages doesn’t begin until secondary school age. This timescale almost entirely surpasses the most effective age for children to learn a second language, where the brain is most malleable and has the greatest “plasticity”. Although I don’t have the sources to hand on this blog, apparently the best age to start picking up a second language is between 4 and 11 – we, in the UK, start at 11, which is the closing time of this fruitful period.

It’s obviously a contentious issue as to whether this is a moral idea. Imagine that your child goes to school in the morning, and then after school has a club of some description, or perhaps a music lesson – at which time of day do you schedule this language learning for? Many would say that one full rotation of the earth is not long enough to cram this all in, and I might agree with them. Particularly in a mono-lingual household. If you yourself haven’t got a second language, then how can you be expected to teach your child what you don’t even have in your own wheelhouse, unless you enlist the help of a specialist language tutor for young kids – and that’s likely a costly venture.

And of course it goes without saying that this isn’t the most pressing of issues. How about we sort out the bigger societal problems first, like securing enough funding for schools or ensuring that children from lower-income families can get school dinners. I understand that entirely, but that doesn’t mean that we Brits should lose sight of this issue. Languages pay off – having one or two extra languages is an excellent string to the bow when it comes to the employment market, particularly in our ever-globalised times. Just look at the booming Chinese market – I reckon Chinese language is one of the most employable skills one could have.

So if, inexplicably, you are a parent of a young child reading this, then all I would suggest is to take this into account. I can’t really express how much I would have appreciated having a secondary language from a young age. Living in Vienna now, I’m thankful for my German teachers throughout secondary school for imparting a passion for languages on to me (throughout my school career I learned, at various times, German, Spanish, Latin and Chinese, and they were always my favourite subjects) and it’s something which I continue to plan to build my adult life around. Perhaps whilst in Vienna I’ll learn French or Spanish to open yet another door in the post-university stage of my life. And, if you have some free time, even 5 minutes a day (as we all have at the moment) then perhaps you could give yourself the foundations of German – that might be useful when I start writing blog posts in German (and I am probably not kidding).

Thank you for reading. Please subscribe to my blog and have a look at some of my other posts – it’s all very much appreciated. Have a good one.


  1. I do totally agree with you regarding languages and also the focus on languages that are possibly not the most useful in the future…..I also think that schools forcing pupils to take a gcse in a language is ridiculous. I think language learning is something some people love and some people hate and I think people should have a choice. Its a shame that young people have to take up a gcse option space with a French or German rather than art or textiles or drama or technology.


    1. Of course, some people will naturally never want to learn a language – you should have seen my GCSE German class. With better quality teaching from a younger age, however, pupils might develop a passion for languages that they might not have developed otherwise – something I would have been grateful for. Forcing people to take a qualification in a language isn’t wise, I agree – but my bet is that these people didn’t have the best experience when they started learning. I bet there are plenty of kids out there who would be fantastic at, and enjoy, learning languages, but the system as it is never gives rise to that ability or passion.

      Liked by 1 person

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