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Debate: Compulsory foreign languages in school

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Should all school pupils be made to learn at least one foreign language?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by George Molyneaux. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

In almost all EU countries, all secondary school pupils have to study at least one modern foreign language until the school leaving age. The exceptions are Italy, the Republic of Ireland and the UK. In some countries, more than one language is compulsory. Sometimes pupils have to start learning a language at primary school. Foreign languages are less often compulsory in English-speaking countries. This is probably because English is widely understood worldwide. This means that people who speak English often think they don’t need to bother learning other languages. In the UK (except Scotland), the government makes pupils learn a foreign language between the ages of 11 and 14. They do not need to study a language after this, but they must attend school until they are 16. In Scotland, the government does not make pupils study a foreign language. In the Republic of Ireland, all pupils learn English and Irish. However, neither of these is considered a foreign language. Pupils do not have to learn any other languages. Some pupils in Italy stop learning languages when they are 14. However, some schools in Italy, Ireland and the UK (including Scotland) make pupils learn modern languages until the school leaving age. Pupils in countries with a Baccalaureate system (e.g. France) must usually study a foreign language. The proposition must define this debate especially clearly. What age would pupils have to start learning a language? For how long? If they stay at school after the minimum leaving age, do they need to carry on learning a language? Do they have a choice about which language(s) to study? Would they have to take exams in the language?

Argument #1


Foreign languages are important for the economy. The more languages someone can speak, the more places they can work. Foreign language skills help companies do business with other countries. It is especially important that children whose native language is not widely spoken (e.g. Dutch, Danish) learn other languages. However, it is also important for English-speakers to learn foreign languages, since not everyone speaks English. And it is polite to be able to speak some of another person’s language. Governments should try to promote economic growth. Since languages are important for the economy, governments should make all young people learn them.


Other skills are more important to the economy. Many young people are hardly able to do simple sums or read and write in their own language. More time should be spent on these basic skills, not foreign languages. Not all workers need to know foreign languages. There is therefore no point in making everyone learn them.

Argument #2


Foreign languages are important for the individual pupil. Employers value people who are able to speak more than one language. Learning a language will therefore help students get good jobs when they are older. It will also increase their understanding of other cultures.


It should be up to the individual to decide what is useful for them to study. A pupil may not want a job that would need a foreign language. It is wrong for the state to tell people what is important for them. Cultural understanding can be gained in other subjects (e.g. History, Religious Studies, Geography).

Argument #3


Pupils cannot decide for themselves what is important. Most do not realise that knowledge of another language will help them in almost any job. For some jobs it is essential. It is hard to learn a language in adulthood, because of time pressures and because the brain becomes less flexible. It is therefore very useful to learn a language when young. Young people are often only concerned with the short term and think little about adulthood. Important choices therefore cannot be left to children. They should be made to learn a language.


Young people have to learn to make choices. If they do not realise the benefits of learning languages, these benefits should be explained to them. It is better that pupils choose to do languages. If a pupil chooses to study a language, they are more likely to be keen and interested than if it is something they are forced to do. In any case, many adults do successfully learn new languages through evening classes or distance-learning courses. So choices made at school will not limit someone’s options for the rest of their life.

Argument #4


A pupil may have a hidden talent for languages. If languages are not compulsory, they would never find this hidden talent. All pupils should be made to learn languages, to see if this is something they are good at.


It is not necessary to learn a language all the way through school to find out if you have a hidden talent for it. A short “taster course” is enough to find this out. For every pupil who turns out to have a hidden talent in languages, there are many who do not. It is bad to force people with little interest or ability to study languages. These pupils are likely to be bored in language classes. They could better spend their time learning other things. They are likely to be disruptive to the pupils who actually want to learn.

Argument #5


Many pupils think foreign languages are hard. They think that they will get lower grades than other students if they choose to do languages, rather than “easier” subjects. The solution is to make everyone study a language. This would mean that pupils would not be worried about people getting better grades by picking easier subjects.


If languages are harder than other subjects, this is an argument for changing the grades awarded for language papers. The curriculum for language courses could also be made less difficult. A language course should be no harder or easier than any other subject. This is not a reason to make languages compulsory.

Argument #6


In the short term, it might be hard to find teachers. However, modern languages graduates could be given extra money to encourage them to become teachers. In a mobile world, it is also easy to attract teachers from another country to teach their native language abroad. In the long term, making languages compulsory at schools would solve this problem. If languages were compulsory at schools, more people would study them at university and more people would become language teachers.


6. There is currently a shortage of language teachers in many countries. If foreign languages were compulsory, even more language teachers would be needed. This would mean that unqualified staff would have to teach language classes. It is unlikely that such staff would be able to teach pupils well or make them interested in languages.


  • This House believes all school pupils should learn a foreign language
  • Cette chambre rendrait obligatoire l’apprentissage des langues etrangeres pour les jeunes
  • Dieses Haus glaubt, dass alle Schulkinder Sprachen lernen mussen
  • This House believes that we should learn other people’s languages if they learn ours
  • That foreign languages should be central to a modern education


This debate in legislation, policy, and elsewhere

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