Happy 75th Birthday Saint Martin’s!
I can hardly believe that the academic year has come to an end – my second year at Saint Martin’s has literally flown by! It has been another wonderful year; Saint Martin’s is an amazing school, and as we celebrate our 75th Anniversary the School is going from strength to strength. This last half term of the academic year has been incredibly special as girls, members of staff, Governors, former members of staff, parents and “old girls” have joined together in our birthday celebrations. We have enjoyed a ball, special assemblies, party lunches, ice creams and fairground rides on the field, a music festival and we have even found time to bury a time capsule containing artwork and creative writing from the girls. I am certain that if they were still with us today, our forward thinking founders Miss Zelie Bull and Miss Christine Tucker, would have thoroughly enjoyed the celebrations.
It is with great sadness that we say farewell to several members of staff at the end of this year. Mrs Elston, Mrs Wilson, Mrs Winnett, Mrs Marsh, Mrs Russell, Mrs Pendred and Mrs Beaumont are looking forward to their retirement and plan to spend more time with their family and friends. Mrs Smith, Miss Kneeland, Miss Rankin, Miss Parkin and Mrs Davis are moving to pastures new. I would like to thank them for all they have done for Saint Martin’s – we will miss them but wish them well in the future.
In the wake of the shock EU Referendum result, Europe is the hottest topic for debate in media and social circles. I am not about to start preaching on whether the British public made the right choice. Instead, I’m going to focus on one key issue that has been lost in the wider political debate and will remain constant and crucial; that is the issue of language learning and why it is so important that as a nation we break the curse of centuries of monolingualism. This is a topic incredibly close to my heart as a linguist who has benefitted from EU funding to study at University in both Seville and Nancy.
As we all know, the English lag behind our European neighbours in our ability to speak a second, let alone a third foreign language. Centuries of colonialism have spoilt us, making us lazy and immune to the joys and enormous benefits of mastering a foreign language. As long as English is the lingua franca there is no burning necessity or, in some quarters, desire to put ourselves out and learn to converse in anything other than our mother tongue.
Across Europe, in more than 20 countries, it is mandatory for children to learn not one, but two foreign languages for at least one year with English still the most popular first foreign language adopted. Most students continue to study a language up to the age of 18.
In England these rules apply but the reality and level of foreign language skills is woeful with the number of students studying modern foreign languages on a steep and steady decline. There are a myriad of reasons why this is the case but whatever the causes we need to arrest the decline. As a nation, we can’t rest on our laurels always expecting others to speak English and only having a smattering of well-worn phrases in French, Spanish or German in our linguistic arsenal.
Foreign languages are essential for this country’s economic prosperity and allow our citizens to move freely throughout Europe, for work and for education. Learning a foreign language ensures that we can remain competitive, increases mobility and employability and allows us to participate in society on a European and international level.
The ability to speak another language is a highly sought-after skill in the jobs market and language graduates are among the most employable. The benefits of learning a foreign language extend far beyond the practical ability to speak the language or the career opportunities it delivers, into more profound and physiological territory. It has been proven that being bilingual – even the very act of learning another language – delivers tremendous health benefits and cognitive gains. Researchers have found that bilingual people perform better on certain tests even in unrelated subjects like Maths as well as in reading and vocabulary. People who are bi- or multi-lingual often have better memories and recall. They can remember lists or sequences using mental skills acquired when they learned the rules of grammar and vocabulary.
Learning a second language, even in later life, is a great way to protect those grey cells and has been shown to slow cognitive decline in old age – including dementia and Alzheimer’s. These benefits are not confined to those who are fluent in another language; the mere act of attempting to learn a language delivers the same enhancements and slows the decline.
Language learning also delivers enormous benefits for society at large, encouraging the circulation of works and the sharing of ideas and knowledge in Europe and across the globe. It also helps prevent individuals and countries from becoming insular, strengthening social cohesion, and intercultural understanding.
Culturally, multilingualism delivers enormous returns. People derive greater understanding and appreciation of the arts, science and music all from the study of another language and its cultural heritage, as well as greater appreciation of their own language.
As a nation, we must stop bemoaning the fact that learning a language is ‘too hard’ because, in truth, it is not. We simply need to train our brains to be more receptive and, ideally, this starts early. We are proud of the fact that at Saint Martin’s girls from Year 3 onwards enjoy a weekly language lesson taught by specialists.
We can’t continue to use these hurdles as excuses. As a nation we must do better when it comes to linguistics and change our mind-set about languages; our economic future depends on it. In an increasingly globalised world it is not viable only to be able to speak one language, especially when over 70% of the world’s population doesn’t speak English.
As the term draws to a close, I wish you all a very happy and relaxing Summer holiday. For those of you travelling abroad this Summer, in the spirit of this blog I wish you “Bon voyage! Gute Reise! ¡Buen viaje!” I am travelling to Vietnam this Summer so I have picked this out of my phrase book “chuyến đi tốt”!