I had to go to my French tutor. It was boring, but not nearly as boring as French lessons at school. I think it’s because of the way the teachers teach.
Nowadays I love languages. They’re almost like a hobby for me: sometimes I do a few lessons on Duolingo, not necessarily with a view to speaking any given language fluently in the near future, but simply because I love to look at the way words change, and the relationships between languages. It ties in with my interest in geography and the way people live in other countries. When looked at in this way, languages are about more than words and grammatical tenses; they open the door to whole different worlds.
I used to hate the very concept of languages. I remember reading one of the Noughts and Crosses books when I was younger and learning that Sephy’s favourite subjects were languages – all I could think was, “Why?”. I had learned barely any French in primary school, but when I got to secondary school it was taught as though everyone already had a basic grounding in the language. They eventually became a sort of twice-weekly torture after I burst into tears over a past tense exercise and decided that the only way forward was to smile and nod whenever the teacher said anything. I dropped it as soon as I could.
The preferred method of teaching nowadays seems to be to attempt to ‘immerse’ people in the language, i.e. to speak nothing but French in French lessons, even when your students have no idea what you’re saying. I’m not sure why this is. Everyone knows that children can only learn languages in this way in the first few years of their lives; no one after the age of eleven has the faintest chance of learning a language just by hearing it spoken for a couple of hours per week. The result for me was that I simply tuned out completely, accepting that I would never understand anything that was happening. I began to accept, like many other children in this country do, that languages simply weren’t for me.
But this changed when I went to university and I started to learn Old English, the language of Beowulf and the amazing riddles of the Exeter Book. The breakthrough for me was finding a version of Beowulf in which the Old English and Modern English were shown side by side: because the text was in short lines of poetry, I could trace each word or phrase and then see its meaning in Modern English. Suddenly I was given a means of comparing the new and the old rather than just having incomprehensible words and phrases thrown at me. The beauty of the poetry was an additional incentive: I stopped thinking of Old English simply as an early version of the English I spoke, and began to think of it as something with a beauty and character that was all its own.
In my opinion, the intentions behind language teaching in schools are completely wrong. If someone had asked me when I was eleven why I learned languages, I probably would have had no real idea. The problem is that the beauty of language has been whittled down to the purely functional: having forgotten why we as a culture ever decided that language learning was a valuable use of time, we have come up with reasons ranging from the petty (“So I can order food when I go on holiday”) to the hopelessly outlandish (“So if someone from France ever asks me for directions, I can point in the right direction”).
But languages are about so much more than this: they are a gateway to whole other cultures, cuisines, ideas, philosophies; even entirely new ways of thinking about and perceiving the world. When mastered, they allow us to converse with and learn from millions more people. When schools ignore this and pretend that learning a language is only good for summer holidays or for getting a satisfied nod from a university admissions officer, they deprive their students of one of the most important tools for understanding the world they live in.
This was nowhere more painfully clear than one day when I saw a rant on Facebook, posted to one of Oxford’s many groups. It said something like, ‘I simply don’t understand language degrees’, and proceeded to explain that they (the author) had been fluent in various languages since an early age and that those who studied languages at the degree level were effectively wasting their time because were paying money to study something ‘that [the author could] do naturally’. Thankfully, people were quick to jump on the ludicrousness of this: the post attracted numerous parodies and comments from outraged languages students defending their subject. But it just shows that even university students have these perceptions.
I believe that language teaching needs a lot more passion, as well as some real insight into the science behind learning to speak and understand another language. Schools need to stop talking about language subjects only as irritating necessities for university entry. Teachers needs to show the worlds of opportunity that can be opened by the study of languages.