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Why Every Pupil Should Study a Foreign Language at A-Level

“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” – Frank Smith

If I could write a letter to my 15-year-old self, I’d thank her profusely and congratulate her on taking one key decision. Although she had no idea at the time, I’d tell her how crucial that decision was to her entire path through life. I’d congratulate her for choosing to continue studying Spanish to AS and A-Level. Why?

        Two weeks ago I returned to my secondary school, King Edward VI School, for the first time in nine years. Nine years! After spending every weekday of my life there for seven years on the trot, one day I simply left and took nine whole years to return. So why did I return? It wasn’t for one of those awkward school reunions, it was actually to give a series of talks to 4th, 5th and 6th formers (aged 14-18). In total that day I spoke to some 300 students and I titled my talks ’50 Countries and Counting: How Languages Let Me Discover the World’. My aim was to try and convince the students at GCSE level to continue with a language to A-Level. For those who are unfamiliar with the British schooling system, we study 10 or so subjects to GCSE (age 16). After GCSEs we specialise down to just 4 subjects at AS Level (age 17) and then specialise even further to just 3 subjects at A-Level (age 18). Nationally it’s not compulsory to study a language even to age 16, but my school thankfully did make it compulsory. I also spoke to 6th formers (age 17-18) who are studying a language at A-Level and I explained why they should consider including a foreign language in their university degree as well.

Talk about languages

       I bang on about the importance of learning foreign languages an awful lot to anyone in my vicinity, and it’s been a little while since I did so here on my blog, so I thought I’d share some of the key points from my talks to current students at KES.

So why I am so grateful that I took Spanish at A-Level?

        At age 16 I was studying English Language, Spanish, Business and Art at AS-Level. I had my heart set on being a journalist, and I wanted to study English at university and then do a Journalism qualification afterwards. I had it all planned out. I’m not even sure why a year beforehand I’d chosen to continue with Spanish to AS-Level, as I certainly wasn’t planning on becoming a linguist. Anyway, at age 16 I clearly remember going to a 1-to-1 with the careers officer and telling her about my plans to study English and become a journalist. She herself was an English teacher and quickly pointed out that the top universities teaching ‘English’ are actually teaching ‘English Literature’, not the ‘English Language’ A-Level that I had chosen, and that therefore I couldn’t apply to study English at a top university.

       This was news to me. I had always preferred the ‘language’ aspect to the ‘literature’ aspect anyway, so I wasn’t too sorry to miss out on all those literature degrees at top universities, but it did leave me feeling a bit flummoxed and confused about what to do instead.

       I wasn’t a good enough artist to apply for Art. I was top of my year in Business but wasn’t passionate enough for a whole degree in Business. That left me with Spanish, which I was fairly good at, I enjoyed, and I loved the school trips to Salamanca. But I didn’t know of anyone who’d studied languages at university – literally no one. No one ever seemed to speak about languages degrees either – it just wasn’t one of those subjects that you heard much about as a 16-year-old in the peaceful, monolingual, monocultural, quintessentially English county of Hampshire (see the photos above and below for an idea of what Hampshire looks like). By sheer fortune, my combination of A-Level subject choices and a bit of ignorance on my part regarding the two types of ‘English’ subjects, lead me to look into, apply and then start a languages degree at the University of Exeter.

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       Basically, it was a sheer fluke. And now I can’t imagine what my life would be like, or what I’d be doing, if I hadn’t done a languages degree. I most likely would never have moved abroad, I wouldn’t have spent an Erasmus year in Italy and Spain, I wouldn’t have discovered all those amazing cultures, I wouldn’t have met my wonderful friends from all over the world, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the boyfriends I met while living abroad, I wouldn’t have started an international graduate scheme, I wouldn’t have travelled so far and wide, and I probably wouldn’t be living abroad and studying for a Master’s in the Netherlands right now.

       Every single thing I’ve done and every opportunity I’ve had since age 18 has been a direct result of that decision to continue studying languages (honestly, that’s completely true), and the thought that I so very nearly could have chosen another subject is absolutely terrifying. Those 15-year-olds have such important decisions to make at such a young age!

What I wish I had known at age 15: Keep your options open

        Having realised that such a pivotal decision in my life took place at the mere age of 15, it seemed important to me that other 15-year-olds grasp this fact and consider their A-Level choices very seriously indeed. I showed the students this quote:

“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” – Frank Smith

        In essence, I wanted to tell students to keep their options open. To keep those doors in that corridor open! I wasn’t broadcasting propaganda that all 300 of them should study languages at university and follow my exact path – not at all. I was just saying that by choosing an A-Level language, they can keep their options open. This is for a number of reasons. With a language A-Level you can:

  • Study that language at university
  • Study a new language from scratch at university (known as ‘ab initio’, for which universities require proof that you have language learning ability, through an A-Level language)
  • Combine any language with any other subject at university (eg. History and Spanish, Geography and French, Law and Italian)
  • Study, work or teach abroad with Erasmus (which normally requires some proof of language learning ability too)
  • Study for an entire degree in a different country (which are often far cheaper than in the UK)
  • Take a Gap Year to travel, with the excuse of wanting to practice and improve your foreign language
  • Easily pick up other languages later on, once you understand the grammar and language learning techniques
  • Better understand the countries you travel to if you speak the language
  • Count yourself in the 5.5% of the British population who speak a foreign language (isn’t it shocking that that is so low?!)
  • Better position yourself in the job market (as speaking a foreign language in the UK is so rare for Britons, it’s a real asset in any job application)
  • More easily find a job abroad (every single one of my six jobs abroad has required me speak the local language)
  • Apply to a much wider range of jobs in lots of different countries
  • Apparently earn 10% more than people without a foreign language
  • Discover more of this beautiful world through more opportunities to travel and live abroad

        The number of doors opened to me just from studying Spanish to A-Level was a total surprise to me and I wish someone had told me at the time! In my year of 120 students, in the end I was the only one to study languages at university. Two others studied German and Engineering or German and Law, but overall, 3 out of 120 students is pitiful. So I sincerely hope that I may have convinced some of the current students at KES to give languages a decent thought. We have a dire languages shortage in the UK and I don’t believe it’s because we’re fundamentally ‘bad’ at languages. We simply need role models and advocates of language learning if we’re ever to see any improvement!

         Here’s a great little video made a couple of years ago that demonstrates the sheer variety of roles that linguists can go into and why languages are so important in the job market.

        So if you speak a language or have used languages at any point in your life since school, I really urge you to return and give a talk to current students, to explain the opportunities open to them through languages and to open up their horizons. You can either get in touch with the Alumni team or the Head of Modern Languages at your old school directly, or if you live far away you can sign up to the Inspiring Languages website to be matched with local schools as a volunteer available to give talks. Here’s a fantastic guide that Inspiring Languages have produced about the benefits of giving talks about languages and how you can get involved.

Inspiring the Future logo

        And if you also believe that learning languages is important, please share this post! Share it with current students that you know, share it with friends and family, so that as many young people as possible know there are language graduates out there for them to ask questions to.

Did you learn a foreign language at school? If you carried on learning, why was this? And importantly, if you gave up studying a language, why was that? I’d be fascinated to hear your experiences of learning languages at school.

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Other languages-related posts you might be interested in:

8 Comments »

  1. Hi Virginia,

    Great post! I made the opposite decision and stopped studying languages, only to then realise all language degrees would be closed off to me! I was passionate about literature and wanted to do maybe literature and Spanish and in year 13 took a Spanish AS-level but by then it was too late. And as you probably know, if you’re not studying languages then you can’t learn any at university-which is a shame- I think they should make it more open to students not studying MFL too.

    Fortunately, I ended up travelling and living abroad for three years afterwards and learning Spanish, Italian and Portuguese so I don’t regret it, but your route is a lot more secure and takes less work and less time and even has a year abroad. I had to learn those languages myself and at my own time and cost (inc. the opportunity cost of not getting a grad job straight away to travel and learn languages/work abroad).

    You’re right about young people not knowing how important languages can be and how many paths they can open up! Well done on the talk [😊]

    ________________________________

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    • Thank you so much for your comment Settit – you are basically the perfect example to give of how a language A-Level would have kept your options open. I’m so pleased you still managed it without the A-Level (anything is possible!) but it is really interesting to hear your story of the other harder route you had to take. Thank you! And I hope you don’t mind if I mention you as an example in my next talk about language learning!

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  2. Hi Virginia, I started to learn English as my first foreign langauge at school at age 12 and fell in love with it. But what I`m really proud of it it`s that I began to learn German at age 33 and now after 4 years I can say I`m already fluent. The biggest credit goes to my German-speaking husband but my share of comitment and persistance nevertheless makes me proud of my achievement.

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    • Wow well done! And in only 4 years! Having a real motivation to learn for your husband’s sake is really very motivating isn’t it – I always found that living in the country was always a huge motivator for me!

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  3. I really love that quote. A goal of mine is definitely to get back learning languages again! Being able to speak multiple languages really does offer so many more opportunities and it’s also really nice to be able to speak to the native speakers!

    Ali – http://alibourke.com x

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  4. Doing a careers fair at my son’s school this week and aiming to promote language learning – hope I can succeed in inspiring a few to take languages! Any tips?

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    • I hope the careers fair goes really well – good for you encouraging young people to study languages! I found that the biggest ‘pull’ factor when I’ve spoken to young people is emphasising the extra opportunities to travel abroad that are open to linguists, and especially opportunities that seem accessible to young people eg. working as an au pair, tutoring English abroad, studying & working abroad, taking a gap year, backpacking, etc. Of course some of these are available to young people without language skills, but the options are much greater for those with the local language under their belt. Good luck at the fair!

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