Why is learning languages important?


by Jonathan Marshall, Head of Modern Languages at Headington School

In a world where artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming increasingly significant, you might ask: why learn languages when a device can simultaneously translate when required? Why bother when everyone seems to speak English?


The nature of our globalised world means young people will be increasingly called upon to understand and connect with other cultures. In 2017, Google concluded that among the top seven skills its organisation needed most in its employees were the ability to communicate and to possess insights into others – the very skills developed by learning languages. Google judged these abilities to be more important than expertise in STEM1 .  

Making connections

Learning languages allows you genuinely  to connect with others from around the world. At Headington, exchange trips and videoconferencing between students from all over Europe help in this respect, as does our ‘Design an International Space Hotel’ day where pupils use their linguistic skills during the design, procurement and marketing stages of a simulated engineering project. Indeed, taking languages in the sixth form at a UK boarding school prepares students to represent the organisations for which they will later work. They have the skills to converse in the mother tongue of prospective clients, meeting them on their terms, building trust and so providing the marginal gains which can win contracts – not to mention an analytical mind and an eye for detail much appreciated by employers.

Economic arguments aside, ideas and intentions live in the layers of a language, in a way that Google Translate and AI are a long way off revealing. Visual arts, literature and music constitute cultural capital which is intimately bound up with the languages spoken by their creators. By learning languages, pupils appreciate what is different, they look at their own cultures through the lenses of others, and experience the personal satisfaction of communicating in other languages, making contacts and taking opportunities for travel.  

Which languages?

The intrinsic value of language learning aside, you might wonder which languages are worth studying? With China’s rapid economic growth, rich history and cultural diversity, Mandarin appears to be a strong contender. Similarly, Spanish and French seem increasingly important, with new trade deals with fast-growing South American and African countries. Even though the UK is leaving the EU, economists argue that significant levels of high-value trade are likely to continue between the UK and EU and so German, Italian and Dutch remain very worthwhile2 .

Of course, practicalities must be taken into consideration. Estimates3 suggest that for an English speaker, learning a character-based language takes at least twice as long as one based on the Latin alphabet. To offer such a language successfully, schools need to ensure enough curriculum time is available to enable pupils to gain a decent level of fluency. Teachers must be well-trained and public examinations such as GCSEs and A levels must be designed to ensure that non-native speakers are not disadvantaged from gaining access to the top grades. This is particularly important in subjects where a large proportion of entries come from native or near-native speakers (currently Chinese and Arabic). However, given the difficulties of predicting which languages will be needed strategically 20 years from now, perhaps we should not agonise over the choice.

Let’s not forget the main reasons for learning languages are far more wide-ranging than simple economic advantage. Language students become confident communicators who are worldly, open-minded and knowledgeable of other cultures, whichever languages they choose. They develop the skills to pick up further foreign tongues in future and they gain an understanding of what it means to speak multiple languages. I often tell my pupils the story of Nelson Mandela. In prison he learned Afrikaans, the language of his captors. He famously said: ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ Astonishingly, on the day he was released from jail, he postponed his freedom for an hour to have a meal with his jailers. Symbolic gestures such as this laid the foundations for a more equal world – who can argue against striving for this?

1 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/12/20/the-surprising-thing-google-learned-about-its-employees-and-what-it-means-for-todays-students/ 

2 https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/languages_for_the_future_2017.pdf 

3 The Foreign Service Institute in Washington DC estimates that it takes a native English speaker approximately 2200 hours to become proficient in Chinese (600 hours for French) https://www.state.gov/foreign-language-training/ 


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