Speech

Nick Gibb on the importance of studying languages in school

Schools Minister Nick Gibb on the benefits of learning languages. Speech delivered at the German Embassy.

Thank you for that kind introduction Mr Ambassador. Ich freue mich heute hir zu sein.

I feel enormously privileged to be asked to help present today’s awards, and I’m grateful for this opportunity to talk briefly today about the work the Government is doing to promote language learning in schools.

Young people who have a second language are at a huge advantage in life. It opens doors to new friendships, gives them greater facility to learn different tongues and enables them to think both laterally and creatively.

Many of the world’s most important discoveries have been made by the great linguists. The deciphering of the Rosetta Stone, Linear B and old Persian cuneiform by Jean-Francois Champollion, Michael Ventris and Georg Friedrich Grotefend.

On top of this, we know that the German language, in particular, gives us a unique perspective into our own history and society. Some 50 per cent of the most commonly used English words are Anglo-Saxon in origin - brought over by the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes from northern Europe and Germany in the 5th and 6th centuries.

It is absolutely imperative that young people can understand and appreciate these influences. So, let me thank the UK-German Connection, as well as the schools and teachers here today, for the inspiring work they are doing to promote German language skills, and to organise valuable exchange placements for UK students.

The Government is absolutely determined to ensure more pupils have access to these opportunities. And I am particularly keen to encourage more students to take advantage of the close economic ties between the two countries by considering German as a subject choice at GCSE, A Level and University.

As I’m sure everyone here will know, London is a base for many of the largest German institutional investors and businesses, house-hold names like Deutsche Bank, Allianz and Commerz Bank. These companies - their competitors and their partners - are crying out for school and university leavers who can speak German confidently and have experience of working in an international setting.

Only this year, the CBI conducted a poll of businesses showing nearly three quarters of employers in the UK value linguistic skills in their employees, with 50 per cent rating German as the most useful for building relations with clients, suppliers and customers - ahead of every other language including French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Mandarin.

Thanks to organisations like the UK-German Connection, our teachers and schools, we are making some progress towards meeting this demand, but it would be wrong to pretend we do not have challenges before us.

Last week’s European Survey on Language Competencies placed England at the bottom of the table for foreign language skills in reading, writing and listening.

The study also found that:

• pupils in England start learning a language later than average;
• are taught it for fewer hours a week than average;
• spend less time on homework than average;
• do not see the benefit of a language as much as most other pupils in Europe;
• and were significantly behind their peers, with only one per cent of foreign language students here able to follow complex speech. This compared with a Europe average of 30 per cent.

We have also seen a sharp drop in the number of UK students taking modern foreign languages over the last seven years. In 2004, 118,014 students took German at GCSE, by 2011 the figure was just 58,382. A 49 per cent fall.

The Government is 100 per cent committed to restoring languages to their rightful place in the school curriculum: ensuring more children are able to access the kind of high quality learning and experience we are celebrating today.

As many here will know, we announced this year that we want to make foreign languages compulsory for children from the age of seven in all primary schools. This proposal is now out for consultation and I urge everyone here to make sure their voices are heard.

Importantly, we have also included foreign languages in the new English Baccalaureate to arrest the decline in the number of children taking languages like French, German and Spanish at GCSE.

Already we are seeing a positive impact: the National Centre for Social Research estimated that 52 per cent of pupils were expected to enter GCSEs in a language subject in 2013. This compared with 40 per cent of pupils who took a language GCSE in 2011.

CfBT’s Language Trends Survey last year revealed similar movement, showing 51 per cent of state secondary schools now have a majority of their pupils taking a language in Year 10, against 36 per cent in 2010. This proportion increased particularly among schools with higher levels of free school meal children.

To cope with this extra demand, we need to attract more teachers into the profession. Greater pupil numbers are likely to stretch staffing resources in many of the E-Bacc subjects unless we take action.

This is why the government is also prioritising initial teacher training places on primary courses from 2012 that offer a specialism in modern languages, sciences and maths. From 2013, we also want to adjust financial incentives to favour teacher trainees with a good A Level in language subjects like German.

Our overarching goal is clear - we want to provide every child in the country with access to the very highest standard of education: irrespective of background. And that’s why all our reforms over the last two years have been, and will continue to be guided by three principle objectives.

First, to close the attainment gap between those from poorer and wealthier backgrounds. Second, to ensure our education system can compete with the best in the world. And third, to trust the professionalism of teachers and raise the quality of teaching.

Thanks to the hard work of pupils and schools, we are beginning to see real progress but the scale of the challenge in languages should not be underestimated or oversimplified.

English children do not tend to be immersed in languages to the same extent as young people in many other countries - where English speaking music, TV, films and media are a part of tapestry of everyday life.

Nonetheless, many of this country’s best state schools have shown that there is no reason why young people in the UK cannot embrace and learn languages effectively.

St Paul’s Church of England Nursery and Primary School in Brighton is the first bilingual primary school (Spanish-English) in the country and it is now achieving outstanding results in Year 6.

The Bishop Challoner School in Birmingham is achieving excellent results for its pupils thanks to an enormously impressive language department that trains its own language teachers.

I know many of the schools here today are setting exactly the same example, and I would like to congratulate all of today’s nominees for the inspirational, tireless leadership they provide in the teaching of languages.

Charlemagne likened having a second language to having a ‘second soul’.

This government is committed to ensuring every single pupil in the country has the opportunity to experience this for themselves: to gain a deep understanding of other cultures, and access the enormous benefits of speaking a language other than English.

Thank you.

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