Spanish has recently become one of the most studied foreign languages in the UK and in Europe, which has led to the surge of internationally recognised institutions such as Instituto de Cervantes (the Spanish government agency responsible for promoting the study and teaching of Spanish) and acronyms like ELE (Spanish acronym for ‘Spanish as a Foreign Language’).

In the United Kingdom, recent publications from the British education inspector, Ofsted, have shown a very gradual but stable growth in the number of secondary schools teaching Spanish and students choosing Spanish for their official examinations. This is not the case for other foreign languages such as German, Chinese, or Latin, which have reported no significant progress in the latest surveys.

Despite the increasing interest for Spanish at secondary level, French remains the predominant language in primary schools in England, which means that most year 6 students transitioning from primary to secondary school will have already studied French before starting year 7, regardless of the language taught in their chosen secondary school.

In Scotland, the ‘1+2 Approach’ policy that the Scottish Government put in place in 2016 aims to promote the learning of both a second language and a third language at an earlier stage in primary education, giving greater exposure to Spanish. This policy is a clear response to today’s multilingual society and supports Unesco’s objective to foster linguistic and cultural diversity within the academic setting world-wide. This is not only to promote professional, academic, and economic prospects for future generations, but also to foster values of acceptance and tolerance for different cultures and languages.

Based on the data that has been published from institutions mentioned above, we can argue that most British schools are teaching French first and Spanish second. As a PhD researcher, I am interested in how the order in which French and Spanish are studied affects the learner and whether a previous knowledge of French can help students who are starting to learn Spanish.

I am studying two groups of native English speakers learning Spanish at the University of Edinburgh. Firstly, those who are studying Spanish as their only foreign language and, secondly, those who had previously learnt French and are now simultaneously learning both French and Spanish. I want to know how previously acquired languages, both English and French, can affect the new foreign language being learnt, and if this helps or hinders learning Spanish.

This increasingly popular language combination could show that learners of French and Spanish have a more rewarding experience and make more progress in their language learning process compared to students of other language combinations (e.g., German-Spanish or Mandarin-Spanish). My hypothesis for the reason behind this is that similarities in grammar and vocabulary between French and Spanish are more likely to help foster learning compared to other language combinations like those mentioned above.

In my particular research study, I will be looking at how the participants learn the subjunctive mood and the past tense. The progress of each group will be analysed, looking to see if learners who already have knowledge of a foreign language that can potentially support the learning of a third language have a different experience from those who can only count on their mother tongue of English.

Official EU statistics on language learning across Europe show that the UK overall is far behind fellow European countries. In fact, the UK Parliament and the British Council predict that Brexit may severely impact British students’ motivation to learn languages as a result of less opportunities for school trips abroad and the increase in travel restrictions and paperwork for university exchange programmes. The limited interaction of British students with European languages and cultures could potentially lead to an even greater lack of interest for European languages and the belief that these are of limited use.

This research project hypothesises that children can make better progress when they learn French and Spanish together, which could significantly boost their confidence, personal interest, and motivation for the learning of new languages. It is important to mention that the demand for non-European languages in secondary schools such as Mandarin have experienced a surge in the last decade, so this investigation could also open a new discussion about how more distant language combinations such as Mandarin and Spanish can support students’ learning.

Further Reading

British Council, ‘Languages for the future

Language learning in Scotland: a 1 + 2 approach