Mrs Rachel Rees
Acting Head, Haberdashers’ Monmouth School for Girls
People in the UK are renowned for not speaking modern foreign languages. A survey published by the European Commission has justified this opinion with the results proving that Brits are the worst language learners in Europe; 62 per cent of people surveyed couldn’t speak any other language apart from English.
Furthermore, since its removal from the core GCSE curriculum in 2004, the number of pupils in the UK taking GCSE languages has been in decline. However, the introduction of a new government initiative, in conjunction with University College London’s (UCL) Institute of Education (IOE), is set to change the landscape with a flagship language programme being launched with schools selected to lead on boosting language interest in the UK.
The benefits of learning a foreign language are plentiful. As well as the economic benefits of learning languages in terms of improved trading between countries worldwide, languages help us to meet new people, learn new skills, expand career opportunities and make foreign travel easier. Schools therefore have a responsibility to ensure pupils understand the advantages of studying a foreign language.
In a boarding community where diversity is valued and different cultural backgrounds are celebrated, the study of modern foreign languages is more important than ever. It is important to ensure that pupils receive a broad linguist diet by choosing a linguistic focus and rationale upon which to base the curriculum. In UK schools, this focus is very often on Europe, with French, German and Spanish on the curriculum (although many independent schools also offer Russian, Mandarin, Arabic or Japanese). The aim is to equip pupils with a basic understanding and knowledge of the two main language systems of Europe – the Romance languages of the south and the Germanic languages of the north. It is hoped that having such a rationale will enable pupils to have a positive, enjoyable and informative experience of modern language teaching and encourage an awareness of the communities at large, around the world, which share the target languages and cultures.
In 2021, the British Council reported that French is still the most commonly taught language in English secondary schools at Primary and Key Stage 3, with Spanish being the most popular A level choice.
Celebrating culture and history
Language learning celebrates the cultural traditions and history of the target language while learning about the lifestyle and issues associated with young people today. In modern foreign language departments throughout the UK, the emphasis should be on learning that extends beyond the classroom to allow full engagement and ultimately a love of the language, the country, its people and its culture. This can be achieved in a number of ways.
Visits or exchange programmes provide students with the opportunity to immerse themselves in the language and culture of a country.
It is important to enthuse and inspire pupils by offering a stimulating learning environment within the classroom. Competitions are also a great way to get pupils involved with language. From poetry recitations and Christmas card designing to songs and inter-schools debating competitions, there are no limits to what schools can offer pupils in language activities outside the classroom.
The Dresden Scholarship programme is an excellent initiative, where selected Year 13 students are sent to the University of Dresden to follow an academic programme, while living and immersing themselves in student life in the city. The Oxford German Olympiad is another popular competition that gives students the opportunity to extend their subject knowledge and compete against other like-minded linguists at a national level. These opportunities enrich students and build confidence, giving them the chance to use their language in creative and imaginative ways.
Work experience abroad is also a fantastic addition to any CV and a great way to build confidence, learn new skills and improve communicating in the target language. It is something that certainly benefited me as a sixth-form student and cemented my desire to follow a career in modern languages. Taking part in such initiatives also develops vocabulary and a firm grasp of grammar, enabling pupils to achieve their potential in external examinations.
I am always amazed by the creativity of pupils when coming up with ideas to promote languages. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing pupils getting enthused and excited by something for which you share a mutual love.
Pupils should be taught the benefit of language learning from an early age. They need to know that all languages are valuable. The acquisition of any language can expand linguistic capability, enhance employability, enrich cultural understanding and provide a valuable resource which helps to overcome communication barriers.
Mrs Rachel Rees is the Acting Head at Monmouth School for Girls, having previously been Senior Deputy Head (Pastoral). She took on the Acting Head’s role at the start of the Summer term in 2023 and has previously held the post of Director of Sixth Form. Mrs Rees has also taught at Langley Park School in Beckenham and The Ravensbourne School in Bromley. She has more than 23 years’ experience teaching Modern Foreign Languages throughout the key stages in both state and independent schools. Mrs Rees completed a MEd (Educational Leadership and Management) at Buckingham University in 2022.