Sunday, 2 September 2012

If other languages were as fashionable as French, would more teenagers be studying them?

The actress Krysten Ritter sporting a jumper from H&M (pic from
Have a browse round any high street and you may notice a lot of similar things again and again. No, I'm not talking about rude sales assistants and long queues for the changing rooms (although these are also far too regular occurrences in my book.) However, without thinking about it, you may not notice the ubiquity of the French language. Think about it: how often do we see tops emblazoned with Je t'aime or Très cool? And how infrequently do you see any declaring Ich liebe dich or Muy cool. Exactly. Yesterday I was exploring one of Austria's biggest shopping centres, and I was disheartened to see that language-wise, their fashion offerings are exactly the same as back home: Predominantly English, and then some French.

pic from
There's something about the French language that is very seductive and desirable, and the Paris effect helps too. What do I mean "the Paris effect"? Well, Paris is one of those cities with a reputation so appealing that we all want a part of it. The same can be said for New York, LA and London - how many of you own items of clothing or accessories with some sort of reference to any of those cities? Aha! I thought as much. But what about the other modern European cities? The same cannot be said for Berlin and Madrid, for example. Sure, they're cool, young, vibrant cities, but evidently they don't hold the same allure as Paris.

I saw these four T-shirts in a chain store on Vienna's equivalent of Oxford Street. Nicely backing up my point.
With ever fewer and fewer students studying languages in British schools, I think something needs to change. Fewer than 5,000 pupils took German A-Level this year, and around 12,500 took French. Compared with the 85,714 candidates who took maths this year, the statistics are pretty shocking. But why is this the case? As an undergraduate student studying French and German, I definitely don't have the answer. Do people just find them too hard? Personally, considering both physics and French, I know which would pose more of a problem for me... Horses for courses and all. Perhaps if we changed the reputation of modern foreign languages, more teenagers would be inclined to parlare Italiano (and soz if that's incorrect Italian. As I said, French and German student here.)

"Ich spreche gern Deutsch!" sings Harry Styles. Pic from
French is clearly the most fashionable of the lot. I think popular culture needs to embrace a wider range of foreign languages. I want to see the high street emblazoned with slogans from all over the world! We need multilingual role models for young people (I did once read that Harry Styles can speak French and German, and if that's the case, he needs to be advising his army of tween fans to learn to do the same!) There should be even more films set in locations farther afield than NYC! 

It's hard to know what the answer is to the declining numbers of teenagers learning languages, but I have an inkling that if they were considered un peu più glamourös (WHAT A MAD MIX OF LANGUAGES!), they might just be more attractive, and we might have a few more budding linguists on our hands.

So teenagers, what do you think would make you more inclined to learn a foreign language?


  1. Nice post, Rachel! I've always wondered the same thing...I still don't understand why languages are so unpopular amongst British teens. I've always loved languages (as you may remember) and have always thought being multilingual is the coolest thing anyone can be. However, most British people think i'm the one who's uncool...and the French and Germans are just shocked that i'm English and speak 3 languages(4 on a good day).
    So here-here to trying to promote languages in Britain -it's my ambition in life!

    1. Thanks Vanessa! I'm glad you share my point of view. I always remember you throwing out the odd foreign word here or there at ballet and thinking "OMG I do the same! How cool!" Let's hope we're not the only ones who feel this way! x


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