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Headmaster’s Blog

This week’s Guest Blog comes from our Head of Languages and Head of Boarding, Mr Baurance. Since arriving at ECS in September 2018 he has had a massive impact on both of these crucial areas of the School, and I am pleased that he has agreed to share with the ECS community some of his thoughts on the importance of language learning.

One of the questions I have been asked many times during my teaching career in England is, “Why should we learn a foreign language when most people in the world speak English?”. Whilst it is an easy question for a language teacher to answer, it is a much more challenging task to convince children and sometimes their parents/guardians of this.

The most obvious answer to this question is, no, not everybody can speak English. In fact, you will meet people many people throughout your lives who do not speak English because they have come from a foreign country where it is not commonly spoken. Having said that, what is the probability that I will find myself in a position where I can’t make myself understood? The latter is actually quite high.

The example I always give my pupils is my family. If you went to France and met my family, you would find all of them looking at you with their eyes wide open thinking, “What on earth is this person talking about?” What are the odds of going to France and meeting my family? Well…it depends how (un)lucky you are! Joking aside, I am only using my family as an example to demonstrate that it is quite common to find people in France, or any other country where English is not the official language, who do not speak the language of Shakespeare.

If you often go abroad to visit popular tourist areas, you will always find people who can speak English, for the simple reason that in places where the economy relies heavily on tourism, they will hire people who can speak different languages. On this note, a short message for all the children who will read this blog: going to Disneyland Paris is not really going to France!

One of the sayings I like the most was written by Frank Smith, a contemporary psycholinguist, and it says, “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way”. It is a message I have been trying to engrave in pupils’ minds for years and is actually printed on a poster in my classroom. When we have these conversations in class, children are often intrigued and ask very interesting questions, such as, “Sir, do you think/dream in French or in English?” When they ask me these kind of questions, I know I have got them interested and thinking about what it means to speak different languages.

The answer to that question is that when you work hard and become fluent in a second language, then you train your brain to either think in one language or another. After a while, it does not even matter any more which language you are using when you think or dream, your brain almost stops distinguishing them from one another and in some way they become one language. Your language. When you get to that stage, it feels incredible and it is actually quite difficult to describe. You get an outsider’s perspective about your own culture. You can find yourself in a room with people who speak different languages and you are in the middle, able to understand and communicate with them without even thinking about it.

The brain is a wonderful tool and you can learn anything with it. Once you have mastered a second language, it becomes even easier to learn a third or a fourth one. Why not more? The good thing about languages is that there are thousands of them spoken all over the world. The only limit to how many you want to learn is the limit you set yourself.

If I wanted to be a bit less idealistic and a bit more practical, I would say that learning a foreign language offers you many opportunities. You might want to study abroad or move to and work in a different country, even a different continent. You might decide that you want to travel a lot and explore the world. Many jobs nowadays require a foreign language. If two candidates with the same level of qualifications and experience apply for the same job, the candidate who speaks a foreign language will be most likely to be offered the job. It gives companies an opportunity to develop and work with different countries. Speaking a foreign language opens up a world of job opportunities. Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”.

Whether it is French, Spanish, German or any other language, I think it is extremely important to open your mind to other cultures and ways of thinking about the world.

Finally, I would like to leave you with two other meaningful sayings I particularly like:

“You live a new life for every language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once.” – Czech proverb

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” – Charlemagne.

28 June 2019
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