Internationalism 04.11.16

During Half Term, I travelled to Hong Kong, Vietnam and China in order to promote boarding at LGS. I appreciate that our boarding community of 65 boys may not be well-known to many local parents reading this blog. However, we are very proud of the different outlook that our largely overseas boarders bring to the Grammar School.

Loughborough Grammar School has had boarders since it moved to its present site in 1852. From the 1970s, boarding was compulsory for boys who were deemed to live too far away to travel to Loughborough every day: if you came from West Bridgford for example, you had to board. However, improved transport links, not to mention our coach service network has made daily travel from Nottingham, Melton or Ashby rather easier than was the case 40 years ago, and local weekly boarding has lost popularity. Almost twenty years ago my predecessor, Paul Fisher, opened up boarding to international pupils and the total number of boarders has grown from 40 to 65, helped not least by the extension to Denton House carried out 5 years ago.

During my trip to Asia, I met dozens of boys who were determined to embark on a British education and were interested in applying to LGS. Naturally, not all have the advanced English language skills required to embark on GCSE or A Level study with us, but their motivation and courage in contemplating a move of thousands of miles, away from their family and friends, were impressive. Our day boys benefit hugely from sharing classes with some of our international boarders, seeing their diligence and resilience in overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers. Talking socially with our boarders also helps day boys to understand the varied perspectives that people of different nationalities have towards daily life.

I met some of our (less) Old Boys out in Hong Kong during my recent visit. Although I had of course not known them during their school careers, they were outstanding ambassadors for the Grammar School and I marvelled at their English fluency. Most had even retained the accent, distinctly referring to the town as ‘Lufborough’! These young men in their twenties and early thirties were extremely proud of the traditions and values that the school represented for them. It is an appreciation of the holistic education provided by British independent schools that makes the UK such an appealing destination for international parents.

How do the British feel about the prospect of studying or working halfway across the world, I wonder? I know from running countless language exchanges that even one week in a non-English speaking environment can be daunting for a teenager. We run an annual exchange with an International School in Qingdao, China, but experience shows that we always have far more Chinese boys who want to come here for the exchange than LGS boys willing to travel to China and spend 3 weeks in a different culture. But LGS boys are no different in this respect from those in other schools that I have known. Perhaps unsurprisingly as a Modern Languages teacher, I conclude that our reluctance to spend a period of our lives living abroad comes down largely to attitudes towards learning a foreign language. We have the advantage (and disadvantage) of speaking the world’s language. Overseas students are desperate to come to the UK to study for linguistic reasons: unless they are fluent in English, they will be held back in their country’s job market. There simply isn’t this imperative for us for whom English is a native language. Fluency in a foreign language is relative rare even for highly educated Britons. It is acceptable for an educated Briton to say “I never got on with languages at school”, whereas educated Scandinavians, Dutch or Germans would never want to admit to not understanding English.

I wonder how Brexit will affect this. Will we retreat further into monolingualism, or will be need foreign language more now that we have to build trading relationships with individual countries? A recent all-party parliamentary report argues the latter. We know that necessity is the mother of intervention, and it has been the necessity of learning English that explains why so many of our European neighbours have such excellent language skills. All EU negotiations have been in English, as this has been one of the 3 official languages of the EU. If we have to speak foreign languages in the future in order to access the best jobs in exporting businesses, perhaps necessity will drive us to higher standards?

I question I am often asked by parents is “why don’t the boys all learn Mandarin Chinese at LGS?” Like you, I’ve read this opinion several times in the media. “China will be the world’s most important economic force for a long time, and we need to do business with her.” This is undoubtedly true. However, this argument doesn’t look at practicalities whatsoever, and I have some personal experience of the difficulties that boys encounter with Mandarin.

Just over a decade ago, I was Head of Modern Languages in a large London boys’ school, where we offered Chinese, alongside Japanese and 4 European languages for boys from Year 7. The reality is that learning Mandarin is hard. When we learn French, Spanish or German, we have the advantages of a common alphabet, similar pronunciation rules, similar grammatical rules and a lot of cognates (vocabulary in common) owing to our common linguistic heritage. None of this is true with Mandarin, where individual characters have to be diligently learned, and 4 tones mastered. My experiences were that parents and boys loved the idea of learning Mandarin before they started, but that very few enjoyed it after 6 months because they were aware of how slow progress was against those studying a European language. The lesson I learned from this was that pupils should try to achieve a good level (e.g. A Level) in a European language first, where the shared cultural advantages give them a significant headstart. Once you’ve developed these advanced language-learning skills, then by all means turn to Mandarin. However, to acquire even a good level of functional fluency, you will have to live or work in China. This is precisely why our boarders want to travel in the opposite direction to come to Loughborough. The level of fluency required to use a language professionally can only come through immersion.

I must admit that, having just returned from China, I felt shame at my inability to communicate even the simplest sentence and I have resolved that I must personally bite the bullet and learn some basic Mandarin.

I would encourage your sons to take the plunge in studying or working abroad for an extended period. Having spent two periods of my life working in France, I know how it made me grow up and discover who I was. My personal experiences give me tremendous respect for our boarders who have travelled much further than I did, and at a younger age. I hope that this post has made you think about the boarding community at LGS. Perhaps you might be able to play a role in contributing to our boarders’ positive experiences of the East Midlands? If your son is a friend of one of our international boarders, why not invite him home for a Saturday night? He would love the opportunity to be part of a British family for 24 hours. I was pleased to welcome some of our Year 13 boarders to Sunday lunch just before Half Term, and was fascinated to hear their impressions of daily life here. Their different sense of perspective enriches hugely the Loughborough Grammar School community.