Aisha Iqbal: Learning a foreign language should be compulsory at GCSE

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I have always loved learning languages.

I grew up bilingual, navigating daily between two languages and two cultures.

That may or may not have been a factor in spurring in me - from a very young age - the desire to learn to communicate with as many people as possible in as many ways as possible.

At school, I just took to German and French like a duck to water, and carried on at University.

They are both a bit rusty now - and my participles and feminine/masculine nouns are probably appalling.

But I still try to speak both languages as often as I can, and have centred most of my travels on German and French speaking countries.

I truly believe the fact I learnt foreign languages has been core to the shaping of my identity, and I will be eternally grateful to my languages teachers for encouraging me.

That’s why I couldn’t agree more with the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, when he rails against the sharp drop in children learning languages at school, and says that our increasing inability to speak foreign languages is an embarrassment that threatens to leave us languishing behind the rest of the world, especially post-Brexit.

This is something that saddens me deeply.

Why have we allowed it to get to this?

The answer lies, at least partly, in confused and ill thought-out Government policy, and its knock on effects.

In 2004, the then Labour Government decided to make languages optional at GCSE. They put the focus instead on learning language at primary school, with the hope that pupils would stick with it and take up the option in later years.

But that didn’t happen, and take-up rates at GCSE have dropped

That, of course, led to less pupils taking the subjects on to A-Level and degree level, with the inevitable long term consequencebeing plunging numbers of modern languages teachers.

The future is not looking good, unless there is a radical reversal of educational policy.

But it’s not just about policy. It’s also about our attitudes, especially - but not exclusively - post-Brexit.

I know that in this globalized world, English is and will remain the dominant language - although Chinese, Arabic and even emoji are increasingly snapping at our linguistically hegemonic heels.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to learn other tongues.

Language is such a beautiful tool to help us try to understand each other - and by ‘understand’ I don’t just mean linguistically.

I fear we are suffering from a mixture of a hangover of colonial conceit, and global machinations - exemplified by American new imperialism, cultural and other - which is sending us down a perilous path to ignorance.

If we can’t communicate with people different to us - and attempt to do it on equitable terms of give and take - then we’re not really going to get much done.

It seems an obvious statement, I know, but we increasingly seem to have forgotten this basic tenet.

Some scientists believe that all human languages evolved from a single common language spoken by our ancestors in Africa. It is thought that human language probably started to develop around 100,000 years ago - before that we were all talking in sign language.

The Ethnologue catalogue of world languages - considered a bible of linguistics - currently lists 6,909 living languages spoken by 94 per cent of the world’s population. Languages are our priceless treasures.

Whether we speak a foreign language or not, market and social forces will always ensure we can understand at each other. But at what LEVEL we do that is a whole other matter.

This is ultimately about our willingness to make connections beyond our own, and to step out of our comfort zones.

For me personally, language has allowed me not only to know the rest of the world, but to know my own world with a different and - dare I say it better and more open - vantage point.

I genuinely believe that learning at least one foreign language should be made compulsory at GCSE again - and that the next generation will thank us for it ultimately.

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