Secondary school pupils are cheated out of the joy of language learning

A letter from Martin Ketterer in The Herald

IN his plea for “a method of language tuition that actually works”, Marc A Head (Letters, January 20) conflates two distinct but related phenomena

The Prime Minister is right to insist on competence in basic English for migrants to this country, chiefly because it’s a tool of empowerment, especially for women whom certain men would prefer to keep voiceless; but mastery of the most important language in the world - with the richest literary treasury – is also a good in itself.

Mr Head deplores the slow erosion of foreign language teaching in our schools. One reason is cost-cutting but behind that is, paradoxically, the success of English. He mentions that in the 1960s and 70s most 11-14 year olds learned French; but French has long been displaced by English as the lingua franca of business, politics and academe.

As a pupil who learned French and Italian, alongside Latin and Greek, I feel sorry for secondary school students today. They’re no doubt told, everyone speaks English, study something that will land you a job. But they’re being cheated.

Learning a foreign language is taking your brain to the gym: it makes you better at everything else. Fluency in a foreign language is a key to a people’s culture, because in a crucial sense language is thought. And then there are the priceless moments, such as sitting at a bus stop in suburban Paris, aged 19, speaking with an old lady who seemed happy simply to recall the privations of war, the loss of friends, and the loneliness of everyday living. My French was not fluent, but she was patient and gracious. That day alone was worth the five years’ hard slog learning irregular verbs.

Martin Ketterer, Glasgow.

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