Languages: opening a world of opportunities

Learning a new language is one of the first – and greatest – challenges of relocating to another country. We look at the opportunities that it provides and find out how some of the UK’s top independent schools approach language teaching.

Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20


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 In today’s global economy, more businesses are expanding overseas and looking for employees who speak foreign languages. A 2017 CBI/ Pearson Education and Skills survey found that around 50 percent of UK companies rated languages as useful to their business. French, German and Spanish were the languages most in demand. 

Decline in language GCSEs

Since 2004, when the UK government decided to make languages optional at GCSE, there has been a slow but steady decline in the number of pupils taking both modern foreign and classical languages.Figures published in 2017 by the Joint Qualifications Council (JCQ) show a continuing downward trend, with the numbers of entries for modern foreign languages falling seven per cent from 2016. Similar declines were recorded at A level and, according to figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the number of universities offering language degrees in the UK is now 30 per cent fewer than in 2000.School search and education advice - connect with our in-country experts

English Baccalaureate

In part to address this downward trend in the study of languages, in 2015 the government proposed that the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) be made compulsory for English schools.The EBacc is a school performance measure which shows where pupils have secured a C grade or above across a core of academic subjects at key stage 4. The five core subjects are English, maths, history or geography, the sciences and – crucially – a language.A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said, “Having the opportunity to study a language is an important part of the core academic education that will help young people gain the knowledge and understanding they need to compete in an increasingly global workplace.“As part of our work to address the historic decline in study of modern foreign languages, we have made it a compulsory part of the primary curriculum and introduced the English Baccalaureate, which includes the study of a [foreign language] GCSE. We hope to see 75 per cent of pupils studying it by 2022.”However, until the EBacc becomes compulsory in 2020, there is concern that the language element is keeping down the number of students who are successfully achieving all five EBacc components. 2017 results showed that fewer pupils achieved the EBacc compared to 2016 and this was mainly due to a drop in language entries. Of those who only entered four of the five core subjects, the majority (80.4 per cent) were missing the language component.The picture is somewhat brighter in Europe. Over recent years, some countries have lowered the starting age for compulsory language learning, with most pupils beginning when they are aged between six and nine. The German-speaking community in Belgium provides language training for children as young as three. However, while more than three-quarters of primary-school students in the EU learn English, the number of EU students taking French and German is below 15 per cent.

Keeping options open 

“One of the purposes of education is to prepare a child for the future,” explains Susan Stewart, head of languages at The International School of London (ISL) Surrey. “For an international child, who may be moving from one assignment to another, keeping all their language options open is crucial.” ISL is a coeducational IB World School for students aged from two to 18 where 27 different languages are spoken by the students.TASIS The American School in England is an independent coeducational school for day pupils aged from three to 18 and boarders aged from 14 to 18. According to Edward Spencer, head of English as an Additional Language, “Learning different languages opens doors to new horizons, as well as providing a competitive edge in the global jobs market. With advances in transport and modern communication technologies, the world is a smaller place in which the acquisition of foreign languages is now more crucial than ever.”Says Tim Jones, deputy head (academic) at Sevenoaks School, “We think that there are huge benefits to learning alongside students from other countries and cultures. Many of the world’s problems stem from xenophobia or miscommunication, and solutions tend to come from familiarity and shared ground. It is important to us that everyone can celebrate their cultural identity and their languages.” 

Celebrating the mother tongue

Several international schools in England give English as an Additional Language (EAL) students the chance to develop and extend their first language as part of their international education.ISL offers a mother-tongue language and literacy programme that is part of the school curriculum and helps students develop literacy and fluency in both English and their first language. According to the school, this helps them to learn more quickly, as the transfer of concepts and skills in two languages strengthens both.Padworth College, a day and boarding school for students aged 13-18 in Berkshire has a unique language provision, which takes full advantage of the 30 different nationalities represented at the school. Teacher-led ‘Student Tandems’ provide students with the opportunity to learn a new, foreign language from a native speaker as a two-way exchange. Students converse in pairs, swapping to use their mother tongue between intervals. “This type of intensive fluency, which could only otherwise be attained through living abroad, is accessible here due to the incredible cultural range of students in our community,” says principal, John Aguilar.

Support for relocating parents

ISL Surrey offers regular workshops on raising bilingual children. These are aimed at parents interested in preserving the family’s home language in an English-speaking environment, and offer tips on how to cope with issues that can arise in multilingual families. The workshops, which have been running for six years, encourage parents not to switch to English at home, as this can be detrimental to both languages.

Developing an ear for languages when young

In the TASIS England lower school, instruction in Spanish begins in kindergarten (age five) and continues through Grade 4 (age ten). The middle school offers French and Spanish at three levels – beginner, intermediate and advanced – to students in Grades 5–8 (ages ten to 14). Upper-school students may choose to study French, German, Latin, Mandarin or Spanish.IB Diploma students may also study literature in their mother tongue. “Learners who acquire multiple languages from an early age are able to reach higher levels of cognitive development and develop stronger critical and creative minds than their monolingual peers. Multilingual learners are also more open to intercultural understanding, which is essential for living in our increasingly global society,” says Edward Spencer, of TASIS.ISL attracts both expat and local children to its schools, as more and more British families acknowledge that the world is international and seek a broader education for their children. ISL provides language learning in French and Spanish for native English speakers from the age of three. Mandarin is also available in secondary school. At ISL Surrey, teaching is in the form of role play, music and song. “Children develop an ear for languages at an early age,” says Susan Stewart, head of languages. “The earlier they start, the better the connections they start to make between sounds and words.”This article was refreshed on 24 July 2019.
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