People often wrongly assume that the main point of learning a foreign language is to be able to communicate when abroad. However, when thinking about this question more deeply, it soon becomes apparent that there is a lot more to language teaching than the mere travel aspect. Of course, being able to communicate with others in a foreign language is a great and rewarding achievement. But it is not the sole purpose of why schools nowadays teach foreign languages.
Throughout my years as a teacher of languages, I have often come across students who argue that there is no point in learning a foreign language. According to them, the fact that “everyone speaks English anyway” is sufficient to justify their apathy towards a different language. Combating views like this is part of being a MFL teacher. In fact, the mere fact that some students hold opinions like these shows how important it is that young people have the opportunity to learn a modern foreign language. Modern Languages lessons are not just about learning a new language. Through the medium of modern languages, students also learn another life skill, which is possibly even more important than learning the language itself: students gain the ability to look beyond what they know. They suddenly have insight into life in a different country and through this experience, they often end up a lot more open-minded and interculturally interested. I believe that this ability to relate to people in other countries has become even more important in the current political climate. Right-wing political parties are on the rise across Europe, there seems to be a trend for many nations to mainly focus on themselves and to lose that intercultural connection. Brexit is just one of the many symptoms of this sad development worldwide.
Another reason why it is important to learn a foreign language is the fact that it allows teachers to also speak to students about customs and traditions in these countries. In return, this can motivate people to reflect on their own culture and traditions. For example, when learning about how Christmas is celebrated in Germany, British students may learn a thing or two about the origin of their own Christmas traditions. They might not have been aware of the fact that the Christmas tree is originally a German tradition, which made it into Great Britain via Prince Albert, who was Queen Victoria’s German husband. Students might also not be aware that the Royal family even today open their presents on Christmas Eve, in line with German tradition, and not on Christmas Day. Looking at traditions from this perspective allows students to not only reflect on difference between foreign traditions and their own traditions. More importantly, it also allows students to realise that they may have more in common than they had assumed originally . Realising that countries are not totally different and separate entities, but actually share some traditions and values is a very important learning outcome in the MFL classroom.
Learning a foreign language also empowers people, as they will rely less on translating tools or translated versions of text that have been written in the foreign language. For example, a student who loves reading literature may find it a lot more rewarding and interesting to read a French or German novel in the original version, which will much more reflect the author’s intention than a translated version would ever be able to convey. Understanding a foreign language also allows you to read newspaper articles in a foreign language. This is particularly interesting with regard to reading news about your own country. Often, foreign newspaper will report more neutrally on current affairs than the national newspapers would. After all, national newspapers are often affiliated with political parties and national interest groups, which impacts on their perspective when reporting on national issues. Foreign press, on the other hand, does not have these links, which means that their articles can often be found to be a lot more neutral and objective. Therefore, one could even go as far as saying that learning a foreign language provides a person with the ability to access a wider range of information, which is ultimately a lot more freedom.