Languages in Decline?
It seems to be a regular feature of the UK news that we are reminded how deficient we are as a mono-lingual nation; our lack of language skills “costs the economy billions” (The Times, July 2021), “loses 3.5% of GDP in lost business opportunities”  (The New Statesman, January 2021) and that the “proportion of 16 year olds studying a language has dropped back to 47 per cent” (British Council, 2018). The impact of dwindling levels of linguists on business is a concern, yet I would argue that the richness of learning about the culture, customs and, at times, the peculiarities of another country are what we are missing out on the most.
Chapeau! Chapeau! Chapeau!
Living in France
My first engagement with learning and speaking a language other than English, was aged 10. My father, a languages teacher, had the opportunity to do a teacher exchange which resulted in my family heading to north-east France one very cold and dark January. I had visited France before, but only as a tourist. This time I had to fend for myself in a Year 6 class, where I was the overnight foreign new girl sensation in a sleepy, mild small town.
I remember clearly learning how to say “je ne comprends pas” (meaning “I do not understand”) the night before my first day, figuring this would be the most useful phrase to have prepared. And while that first day was a bewildering haze of faces, words and school customs, by the end of one month I was communicating effectively with my classmates and after three months I was speaking fluently and confidently. This does not mean I was grammatically or lexically correct; I remember confusing the word for fireman (pompier – sounds like pomp peeay) with a phrase I had heard chanted in church (prends pitie -sounds like pron peetiay), but I could talk to my friends, ask the teachers for help, buy items in shops, in short, survive life in France.
And then to University
My languages head start meant that I continued with my studies in French at university level, having the opportunity to spend more time abroad as part of my degree course. This time I learned to live in France independently, eating far too many pastries and making a lifelong friend.
There were still mistakes of language and of culture; walking into the student canteen wearing a hat which, as a woman, is acceptable in the UK, whereas in France, the whole canteen built up to a crescendo chant of “Chapeau! Chapeau! Chapeau!” until I removed it, mortified.
Then to Teaching French at University
As a teacher I drew on these incidents of cultural (mis)understanding and applying my linguistic knowledge to encourage my pupils. While many might not have the opportunity or interest to go abroad, at least I could bring my experiences to the classroom to recount, bring to life and share with them. In my current role I teach and train university languages students who act as language role models to school pupils, running taster events, providing practice speaking sessions and sharing the challenges they have faced in learning languages. Even where recent UK events may have influenced mindsets around learning a foreign language, my students can still win pupils’ hearts and minds and begin to “transform attitudes….. and achievement” in engagement with languages and their cultures.
 GDP stands for Gross Domestic product which is the measure of the size and health of a country’s economy.
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