The German word for protractor is “winkelmesser”. I learned this during a stuffy late-autumn afternoon in 1998, and I will never, ever forget it. Online banking passwords come and go, I’m not entirely sure of the date of my wedding anniversary and I couldn’t tell you the exact number of women named Ellie in the most recent series of Love Island, but “winkelmesser” would be the word that died on my lips with me, if I met my demise in the manner of Citizen Kane.
It makes me sad that fewer teens than ever are engaging with the pleasures of the Winkelmesser. The Association of School and College Leaders has warned that funding pressures could mean that A-level French, German and music are cut from the syllabus altogether. Financial cutbacks mean that schools struggle to find staff and resources to offer these subjects to students. Another issue is that some state schools don’t have the resources to allow students to take four AS-levels, before concentrating on three A-level subjects – which means that students are under more pressure to choose subjects that seem “useful”. Last year it was reported that the number of students studying arts subjects had fallen to its lowest level in a decade.
At my fiercely academic, competitive secondary school, I struggled with science subjects. Other students seemed incredibly able, which made me aware of my lack of aptitude and knocked my confidence. I became too scared to try. However, almost all of us came to the German classroom as absolute beginners. It was a space without a hierarchy, and we were extremely lucky to have a teacher who told us that mistakes were inevitable. She rewarded us for our enthusiasm. I looked forward to those lessons because they were the only place where it was safe to fail. Perhaps because I was more interested in the subject itself than being good at it, I became totally absorbed by it, and my success in learning a new language gave me a greater general academic confidence.
Even though it’s been half my lifetime since I studied German, I’m still using techniques I learned in that classroom. As well as identifying obscure pieces of stationery, I practise the skills I acquired every time I speak on a panel, conduct an interview or take on a new assignment. Studying languages and arts subjects taught me that there is much more to life than being good on paper. In these subjects, I discovered how to express myself more fluidly, and how to embrace the fluidity of others. Once you’re off the page, there are no right answers, and while I sometimes fretted over how to read music or conjugate verbs, I loved the fact that the rules were much more responsive when it came to speaking and listening.
Our world is becoming increasingly binary. Millennials and our successors, Generation Z, struggle with the pressure to be perfect on paper – or rather, on screen. It makes sense that they are choosing subjects with definite answers, and they seek a classroom experience where the rules are clearly delineated. I believe these generations are more anxious than any others about making mistakes and getting things wrong. Why would they choose to study subjects such as languages and risk starting at the very beginning and not having a natural aptitude for them? Why would they study drama, and be judged subjectively, when they could choose chemistry and get a great grade through enormous effort and diligence?
We are the generations who can’t or won’t speak on the phone, because an unscheduled, unprepared conversation takes us too far away from our comfort zone. If you freeze in terror when an unknown number comes up on your call display, you’re not going to look forward to language lessons, where you might get called upon to answer surprise questions about pets and holidays.
Yet, this is exactly why we need arts and languages. These are the subjects that instil a passion for learning and for life. These are the classrooms where it feels safer to fail, where mistakes are welcomed as proof that you’re trying and growing. Learning a language teaches you to stop being scared of not being right on your first attempt. The process forces you to feel self-conscious and silly, vulnerable and uncertain.
Learning German didn’t prevent me from feeling vulnerable later in life, but it taught me to recognise the feeling and embrace it as an opportunity to discover something exciting. It gave me the confidence to say “I don’t know” (or “ich weiß es nicht”) – the words that facilitate all learning. And it brought me so much unexpected joy. It’s impossible not to smile when you say “winkelmesser”.