‘Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes, there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look that announces that an Englishman is about to talk French,’ reads the opening of P.G.Wodehouse’s The Luck of the Bodkins. Like young Monty Bodkin, my accent may leave a little to be desired, but at least I was taught French to O level-and, for that matter, German, Latin and Greek -because, in my day (not that long ago), languages were considered an essential part of everyone’s education. In recent years, they’ve taken a hammering, and GCSE students are now four times more likely to choose religious studies than German.
This decline can be attributed to various factors. Thomas Underwood of University College School suggests: ‘There is a perception that it’s possible to score higher grades in other subjects.’ Rob Pavey of Lancing College sees it as ‘an unintentional effect of the push for science subjects 15 years ago’. Ros Fletcher of Eton College blames ‘the previous Labour government’s abandonment of compulsory language at GCSE’. All agree, however, that languages, both ancient and modern, have never lost their importance within the independent sector.
Nevertheless, as Mr Pavey points out: ‘Perversely, globalisation seems to have reinforced the feeling that everyone speaks English, so why bother?’ Nick Mair, chairman of the Independent Schools’ Modern Languages Association, has plenty of counterarguments in favour of learning a language. ‘There are cognitive benefits. It provides cultural insights. It’s part of what it means to be educated. It can make a candidate considerably more attractive both to a university and to an employer.
‘It will help to stave off Alzheimer’s for an average of five years. In fact, I can list 700 different reasons why it’s valuable, of which the last, but by no means the least, is that it’s really enjoyable.’
Making the learning enjoyable is something that the independent-school sector really seems to have mastered. At Eton, there is an active modern languages society, which invites an impressive range of speakers, and the boys produce their own modern-language magazine. Cheltenham Ladies’ College prides itself on the sheer size of its department-18 teachers offering 10 modern languages-and the fact that, by emphasising the cultural aspect of a language, girls are actually better prepared for exams.
According to Barbara Roberts, an upper-sixth-form pupil, Roedean incorporates foreign languages into every part of school life: ‘We’ve even got a French cafe and we celebrate the Chinese New Year.’ At Lancing, other departments are co-opted into trips abroad, so the physics department will help with a visit to the Euro Space Center and the history department with a tour of First World War battlefields.
The school has also pioneered innovative new ways of teaching grammar, banishing ‘the tyranny of irregular verb tests’ and placing greater emphasis on the ability to converse-something Monty Bodkin would have appreciated.
The world’s top 10 languages
1 Mandarin (1,151 million speakers)
2 English (1,000 million)
3 Spanish (500 million)
4 Hindi (490 million)
5 Russian (277 million)
6 Arabic (255 million)
7 Portuguese (240 million)
8 Bengali (215 million)
9 French (200 million)
10 Malay, Indonesian (175 million)