Learning foreign languages is a big thing these days. As we grow into a globalised society, children are being taught other languages from an earlier and earlier age. When I was at school I did French and German at high school. Now, you would typically start learning another language in primary school. This is in the UK, where we are far behind our European neighbours, who often speak several languages.
In Finland for example, you cannot earn a degree without speaking Swedish. So even when you go to university, you continue to take classes in Finnish, Swedish, and often English as well. In Luxembourg, you learn French, German and Luxembourgish (yes, they have their own language and it is taught in their schools).
However, all of this this focus on languages misses one quite important point: teaching children languages simply doesn’t work.
The failure of bilingualism
I remember very little of my French. In fact, the things I do know I probably re-learned last time I was there, rather than remembering. My German is poor too. Even my mum, who enjoys languages, speaks enough French to get by when they go there on holiday every year, would struggle to hold a conversation about anything meaningful.
It is not just us Brits however.
Have you ever spoken to a Canadian from the English-speaking regions? My money is on them having no French skills. They learn it in school: it’s an official language. In reality though, they forget it all as soon as they walk out the door.
Even Finland, greatest education system in the world, and with a dire need to learn another language because only 95% of their own population speak native Finnish (let alone other countries) has not been successful. English is strong in urban areas where they get to practice it, but my in-laws don’t speak English. Elina constantly bangs on about how poor her Swedish is. In Finnish Saturday school. I sit next to a Finland-Swedish woman, who’s Finnish is about as good as mine.
Of course many people are bilingual. However, this is primarly a result of them getting the opportunity to use and develop their skills in society: by living in a country and speaking the language. People who learn a language in an educational system do not develop those skills.
But what about the other benefits?
Learning a language does not provide the direct benefit of being able to speak that language, as discussed about. But what about the other benefits? Are there any? The answer is yes. Though what they are and how much benefit they provide is not always clear.
For example, being able to think in another language is highly beneficial because a language provides a construct for thinking. Therefore, by thinking in another language you are taking a different approach and that will improve your problem solving skills. However, this only works if you can think in that other language. As Elina found, you need to live in that language for years before you start thinking in it, rather than translating thoughts back to your native language.
Learning a language may also improve your cognitive skills, help keep your brain active through learning, help you understand your own language better and develop your multitasking abilities.
These are all genuine benefits and very worthwhile having.
However, if we accept that people don’t actually get the language skills out of the learning, they just get these benefits as a bi-product, we are essentially just using language classes as a proxy for these benefits.
Which is fine, they’re good benefits, but why not just teach a class in that? It might be that learning a language is the most effective way to do that. I doubt it though. Teaching a class specifically to develop these skills would intuitively seem the best way to develop these skills, rather than proxying it through another subject.
Teaching foreign languages develops important skills and those skills are certainly worthwhile having. However, given the lack of success in developing language skills, it may be that there is a more effective way to do this. Therefore, teaching languages may not be as important as is often claimed.