The following article comes from Eva Cros, French & Spanish teacher, translator, writer, and Founder of Traduzco, a UK language services company.
The UK government’s ambition is to see 90% of pupils studying the EBacc subject combination at GCSE by 2025, for award of qualifications in 2027. As far as languages are concerned, is this achievable with the current setup and aspirations among students? Shouldn’t we be better at promoting and demonstrating the benefits of learning languages? Throughout the years, by combining long-term studies and extended time periods of time abroad, as language teachers, we have fully integrated speaking and teaching another language as part of ourselves. It can sometimes be challenging to deconstruct our own language and our motivations, because they have become second nature.
I am a French native speaker with a Spanish degree working in the UK in an English-speaking environment, where I teach Spanish. I am a parent of bilingual children, French and British, and I host a teenage Italian girl attending the sixth form who aspires to become an international lawyer. You could say that my family lives and breathes languages.
My journey in education spans 17 years, starting with working in France as a Spanish supply teacher for Education Nationale. Then, I spend most of my teaching career in the UK, where I began as a French language assistant with very little English beyond what I had learned in secondary school. Over time, I became a qualified teacher and then eventually the head of the Modern Foreign Languages department at a large comprehensive school, leading a team of 10 teachers and 3 languages.
Many students don’t start with the same social advantages as most teachers and educators. So, what is the importance of learning a language for students who may not continue with it long-term or who struggle with other aspects of the curriculum? Having worked with students from various areas and socioeconomic backgrounds, I’ve realized that their view of language is often influenced by their social background. When I asked my least enthusiastic students about the point of learning Spanish in my introductory lesson, many simply articulated the benefits of communicating in the target language when travelling abroad. A few related it to attract better job opportunities, while others found it too challenging and not useful. However, one student said, “Because it’s fun to learn.” That’s what I aim to tap into in this article: the intrinsic motivation of students guided and inspired by their educators.
This is why it’s crucial for teachers to be passionate themselves, and not overburdened by the workload. Teacher well-being is central to this approach. It’s what led me to resign from a well-paid, stable head of department job to reconnect with the essence of why I entered this profession in the first place—to foster communication, authenticity, and truth. This is what I want my students to discover through language learning. It’s not only about speaking Spanish or French or any other language; it’s about finding your own voice in your native language also and positioning yourself as a global citizen who interprets the world. This curriculum contributes to the building of our identity.
It’s about finding your own voice in your native language also and positioning yourself as a global citizen who interprets the world.
In addition, the learning behaviours required to master foreign languages are deeply useful for other academic subjects. For example, the discipline of learning little by little and often, organizing ideas, developing listening skills, public speaking with confidence, maintaining tidy and organized notes, and summarizing texts—all these skills are necessary for language acquisition and have a ripple effect on other academic disciplines. This is why it’s crucial for school leaders to encourage collaboration among departments and make meaningful connections between subjects, not just to check boxes. Primary schools tend to be better at this than secondary schools, where learning is often compartmentalized.
In short, learning languages makes students smarter, as supported by numerous research papers highlighting enhanced neural connections in bilingual brains. It can even delay the onset of dementia. Learning languages also fosters resilience, much like learning to play an instrument or swim. It may be challenging at first, but once mastered, it brings great satisfaction and a sense of achievement, boosting serotonin levels in the brain. Language learning also serves as a kind of antidepressant, especially when considering the need for social interaction. This is why many adults decide to rekindle their language learning later in life, sometimes starting entirely new languages.
One of my former A-level students who pursued combined studies with French confided that she didn’t like French at first because she found it challenging. However, she was glad she persisted because it made her tougher and more determined, which ultimately helped her excel in her other subjects. I was delighted that my subject became the catalyst for her discovering inner strength. After all, growth comes from challenges, not an easy path. This is where language learning plays a pivotal role—not only in fostering empathy and collaboration but also in exploring the various facets of our deeper selves, something a translator or AI cannot provide.