Why learn a foreign language?


“Why learn another language when everyone else speaks in English?” In the many English-language schools I’ve taught over the years, I have heard this question repeatedly. Indeed, if others already speak English, why should they learn another language? Well, through the struggle of learning new words, battling with different grammar structure (does the adjective go before or after the noun? “Le noir chat” or “Le chat noir”?), draining repetitive exercises to improve on pronunciation, comes many positive benefits.


First of all, learning a language is not just about vocabulary, syntax and elocution; it is also about culture, customs, geography, people and perspective.


To ignite the desire to learn a new language, it is important for the students to see the purpose of it. Interest can be promoted by learning songs, cooking and tasting cuisine, travel opportunities, celebrating customs or direct links with a place (country or city) where the studied language is widely spoken. Once the students’ attention is hooked and desire has been increased, it is easier and hence, more fun to teach a language. Nowadays, many of them have travelled and explored foreign countries, tourism can be the first purpose.


Learning a foreign language requires commitment. No, you won’t learn Italian or Swedish in 5 weeks, despite what those appealing ads offer. Some people might have this ability but the majority of us don’t. Sure, it’s challenging - you are indirectly practising patience, resilience and dedication. But nothing beats that natural high when you are able to converse with a local. Even if it was only to ask where the train station was. I remember when I lived in Ireland and to improve my English, I would first write down sentences linked to what I was about to do and then felt really excited when I used them. Learning a language is hugely rewarding. I have noticed how proud the students are, saying “bonjour, comment ça va?” when greeting their French teachers.


Research on language learning’s far-reaching effects on the brain shows many benefits of being multilingual. Knowing another language not only increases cultural openness but also brings with it an ability to intuit in another cultural context. Being able to understand and engage with multiple cultures may give multilingual children broader emotional perspectives. It will also influence the way you see other people. You learn to compare and contrast your culture with the studied one.


A study published in the journal Psychological Science in May 2015, found that bilingual children—as well as monolingual children who still had significant exposure to other languages—were better communicators and found it easier to understand other people’s intended meaning. They were better at non-verbal communication.


As previously mentioned, learning a new language requires dedication. It is also a challenge which you are guaranteed to fail at many times. Resilience and confidence will be put to the test. At The Harbour School, where having a growth mindset is key, students know that persistence despite the feeling of failure is part of the journey. Language is a living experience, you can only improve it by having a go.


It is the second year French is being taught at THS. Most of the presentations and expectations of our students is to prepare them for spoken fluency. Students will need to practice and hone conversation skills as early and as much as possible. We want to maintain that sense of purpose and interest.


These days, there are many apps and digital tools available which are very successful in extending a student’s language lessons beyond the classrooms. There are apps that allow you to practise verbs, conversation skills and vocabulary as they allow immediate interaction. We are also connecting with other disciplines when possible including art, media, sports and exporting the use of French outside of the language class.


Regarding promoting French culture, students have experienced crepe making, trips to the Alliance Française, watching French movies (with and without subtitles), and also starting pen pals with Swiss or French students. This will allow the use of written structures and reinforcement of analytical thinking in order to apply the seen grammar rules. Unsurprisingly, food and playing petanque on Lamma island this year were our biggest success so far in engaging student interest.


Teaching French at THS has been rewarding as well as encouraging seeing students blossom in their interest and really making an effort to use French. Seeing Nelly trying hard and giving all the answers she can think of, Alana making her mum look online for the French songs we use in class, or Tom stopping each time he meets us to say a few French words.


So far in THS, none of our students have asked us why they should learn French if the others already speak English. Instead, we’ve seen our students here really embrace the experience. This is exactly the kind of curiosity and willingness to experience a new language that we want to foster in our students. It is priceless and drives us forward as teachers.

Longue vie aux langues!



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