This week Michael Gove, the British Education Minister, announced that children will have to learn a second language from the age of seven. These include traditional modern languages such as French, German and Spanish as well as emerging languages including Mandarin, Hindi and Russian.
The move is part of broader reforms within the British schooling system but the debate over whether British children should or need to learn another language from the age of seven has been the main headline.
It may surprise some of you from outside the UK that British schools currently only require students to learn a language from 11-14, at which age students in the UK pick which subjects they’d like to continue studying . Unfortunately a foreign language is often not picked. Government ministers hope that the decision to make learning a language compulsory at a young age will see a higher continuation of language learning when students pick which subjects they are going to study further, leaving them better equipped to compete in the global economy.
There have been two schools of thought emerging when debating the subject of teaching children a second language (I think you may be able to guess which side we fall into).
One side argues that teaching children English needs to come first, an argument I’m sure that resonates around Europe with each country and their own language, but this leaves me wondering how some countries equip their students with a second, third and even fourth language whilst the UK seems to focus on only one? This argument also usually comes with the assumption of “we don’t need to learn a second language as most people speak English anyway”; a statement that isn’t actually that true now and with the emergence of the BRIC countries will see it become less and less true in the future.
We support the school of thought that learning a second language as a child can give you the best possible opportunity starting in life and that in a difficult jobs market can differentiate you from the crowd. As we’ve highlighted before , languages are not just extremely useful in the workplace, but also in your personal and private life and to learn a language as a child will give you a great head start in life.
Here in the UK, around one in ten primary schools offer no language classes at all with a further 20% only offering them to specific year groups, so one thing is for sure; Michael Gove will have a lot of work on his hands with these reforms.