Foreign Language Teaching In Scottish Schools

It was with interest that I read the article in The Scotsman about foreign language teaching in Scottish schools. Throughout the country, Mandarin is becoming more popular than traditionally taught German. Some schools and even school districts will not be offering German lessons at all.



This is said to be in response to the growth in political and, more importantly, economic strength of China. The setting up of Confucius Classrooms has boosted interest, as has the feeling that children will need to speak the official Chinese language to get ahead in business life when they are older.

I have misgivings about this. When I was in school, we were advised to learn French or Spanish as those were the languages that would be advantageous in business life. I would be interested to know how many of my blog readers have actually found this to be true. How many Brits do business with companies where they have to speak the language, and if they do, was it the language lessons in school that prepared them for this?

Here in Geneva, we have an international community, but the common language is English. My husband works for a multinational company, the meetings are in English, the conversation in and around the company switches to English as soon as one non-French speaker joins the group.

International business language is English. I cannot see that changing anytime soon. I do see that if you have business dealings with a Chinese company, that learning Mandarin would be advantageous but right now business dealings with Germany are still strong, with many companies in Scotland doing business with Germany (although I suspect most of the correspondence will be in English). For several years now, the Germans have been bringing the teaching of English forward, so that most children start English lessons in Primary School.

The teaching of languages should be introduced as early as possible in school, as the window of opportunity for learning a foreign language closes at around 7 or 8 years. After this, it is of course still possible to learn a language, but the children find it more difficult. I fully support the Scottish Goverment’s target to introduce one or two languages at primary school age. I used to teach pre-schoolers English when we lived in Germany, and it is astounding how fast they pick up a language.

Teaching a foreign language at an early age means that the children will find it easier to learn subsequent languages. It is also said to improve cognitive thinking in other areas, improving school results generally.

I wonder though, if we are going about this wrong. We should be teaching foreign languages, but we should perhaps concentrate on the languages our neighbouring countries speak, the languages that we are more likely to use in our private lives. So few people go on to work in an international environment, and if they do then they can likely get by using English, and learn the other language later. We are far more likely to travel to Germany or France on holiday than to China, so would it not be better to concentrate on those languages?

What do you think?



  • J. Hill

    I agree. While it’s nice to try and plan for the future by learning “useful” languages, trying to anticipate what will be useful in twenty years time rarely works out. Who predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, or the economic slump that Japan had? Who predicted the credit crunch? Certainly not enough people to profit from it.

    Predicting the future and what it will require is always chancy at best. I think it is far more useful to offer a choice of languages which are geologically or historically appropriate (Latin is something which still proves useful for those who are so inclined). More distant languages are a lovely option, but they should be offered in addition for those students who have an interest (or who have parents who do), not at the expense of others.

    • mmelindor

      Oh, yes. I remember when we were told to learn Russian and Japanese!

      A friend recently told me that she found it easy to understand French, as she speaks Spanish. Learning French or Spanish often makes it easier to learn the other European languages.

  • Little Me

    I think non English speakers in general are far more open to learning foreign languages and it will take a lot to shift English from being the main business language.

    However I think that learning a foreign language as a child is very important, and opens us up to a whole new culture. I’d agree that for the moment most people won’t use Mandarin, so French and German or Spanish is from a practical point of view more useful.

    I don’t know about the Scottish education system but the English education attitude to language learning is embarassing. Fewer and fewer people are leaving school able to string a sentence together in a foreign language. I think stopping or cutting back on language learning is a big mistake, and will result in an even more insular outlook that there already is over there.

    • mmelindor

      Yes, the teaching of languages in school has traditionally been poor in UK. Mainly, it has to be said, because the rest of Europe are good at picking up the slack. Most of the Germans I knew spoke a bit of English, enough for basic communication at least.

  • A Modern Military Mother

    China is the future. I think English, Mandarin and Spanish are the languages of the forward thinking linguist. But I think everything depends on how strategic a future thinker you are. We are living in our future from when we made our academic choices – does it reflect the education decisions we made then? I think it depends on what kind of future you want your children to have and then you can guide them accordingly, if they will listen that is.

    • mmelindor

      “If they will listen…” – my children are only 7 and 9 years old, and they don’t seem to do that an awful lot.

      This is my point – China is the future, but 20 years ago we were told that the Latin-American world was the future and that we should learn Spanish. Or that Russia would be a great economic success, and we should learn Russian. Maybe Arabic would be good, it is all a gamble really. China could well be the future, but if our children happen to have jobs that require them to travel to Europe, they will have learned Mandarin without being able to use it. Note that I do not state that they have learned it in vain – as no language is ever learned in vain.

      Perhaps it will be the other way around. Our children will seek employment in the countries that speak the language they have learned. Who knows.


    At school I learnt Latin, French, Spanish, German and studied Russian at university. I worked in Europe for years and lived in Brussels – the language I used most? English.

    I think that learning a language is important – it teaches you to think grammatically, and in the case of Latin assists with being able to decode unfamiliar English words, as well as learning another European romance language. However, I think that for some children who perhaps don’t have an ear or an aptitude for it, perhaps they should be encouraged to take an extra science or additional maths or something – the international language of business is English, and I can’t see that changing for some time – even with a dominant China. Most of the other Asian entrepreneurs are going to be communicating in English rather than learning Mandarin or Cantonese, surely?

    • mmelindor

      Oh, very good point about the grammar and linguistics. I was fascinated when we moved to Switzerland and I discovered that “dandelion” in French is “dent-de-lion”, which translates into “Löwenzahn” in German, ie. teeth of the lion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *