In 2001, 78% of KS3 pupils took a modern foreign language at GCSE. By 2010 this was down to 43%, and yet many people agree that in today’s shrinking world, speaking more than one language is an advantage. I don’t teach MFL. But if I did, I would wonder why the convention is to teach it so badly. I don’t mean that there are thousands of bad teachers; I just wonder why the way language is learnt doesn’t feature more, especially when considered together with the natural inclination of many teenagers.
How many times do we hear, “I’m just no good at languages”? From the mouths of people who write books, or teach, or share the results of complex experiments? Yet if you can form this statement, much less do any other communicative task, chances are, you are actually pretty good at language. After all, you use it all the time. You may also use music, or maths, or science, which function in a similar way to a second language.
What most people over the age of about eight or nine are not good at, however, is making mistakes in public. This is especially true of teenagers, who, more than almost anything else, do not want to look silly in front of their peers. So, why suffer the sweaty palms of anxiety of having to manoeuvre your tongue around words you may never have said before, for the express purpose of being judged by 28 of your peers, and an expert, if you can choose to do something else? Something where the spotlight is never so much on you?
Learning a language is something we have all done once already. We have already proved we can do it. But, it is important to remember that, first time round, no one expected you to say anything intelligible for at least a year, maybe more. No one stood you in a group of your peers and made you get it publically wrong. People encouraged you, and glossed over your mistakes, and let you feel safe in your learning.
I don’t know what the answer is. How to encourage natural learning, and still assess progress? Part of it needs to look at the nature of learning, and the need for safety. Immersion works, but only if you happen to be the kind of person who thrives in such an environment (although the same could be said for school full stop), however, faking immersion creates its own learning and emotional problems.
Give them a reason
It’s a dilemma we really do need to address, not least because there are several compelling reasons to encourage the uptake of additional languages in the learning scheme of young people. Not only to ensure they are more prepared for life in an ever more internationally accessible world, but also to help maintain and encourage flexibility in their ability to think generally. Language learning develops synaptic connections in the brain, and more connections means more ways for information to travel, which is good for life long brain health. It also helps people ‘think outside of the box’ – a skill we know employers seem to prize. After all, learning to divorce a concept from its label is a significant philosophical leap on its own, and this is just the start of learning a new language.
But then, as the 2013 MFL A level choices suggest, maybe the choices available are not the ones teenagers can see they might need? In 2013, there was a 9.9% drop in the number of students taking A Level French, and an 11% drop in those taking German. The language that bucked this trend with a 4% rise in uptake, was Spanish. Teenagers are not stupid; how far can they advance their career and business prospects in today’s world, speaking languages languishing at the very bottom of UNESCOs top ten most widely spoken list? Of the three usually offered, Spanish is easily the most widely spoken. Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese and Japanese are all more widely spoken then either German or French.
The possible dream
So, what could be done? Solutions like offering more relevant language options, and introducing more relevant usage and vocabulary seem fairly clear cut. I still remember learning the German for ‘the fly is on the edge of the table.’ I’m sure it demonstrated a very valid grammatical lesson. But, it’s not something I have ever actually needed to say, and need is what drives language learning, long before love kicks in.
Less obvious, perhaps, is the idea of lessons in how we learn language. But why not try it? Language is not a by rote experience, there is joy in understanding that small children are capable of generating utterances which no one has ever said before – so how much more might the brain of an 11-year-old accomplish with language? There is no cut off point, either; there is no magic age after which learning a new language is impossible. Adults make successful language learners.
Maybe we could include in such lessons language comparison – including examples from Latin and Greek, which have application in science, and maths, as well as in the mastery of English and additional languages. Help children see that their minds can make connections, use intelligent guesses to join up linguistic gaps. By approaching a new language not as a totally distinct entity, which must be learnt from scratch, but as a way of communicating that relates to other ways of communicating, some of which they are already familiar with, we allow young people to trust their ability to master the new elements.
This may not be the solution, but I think there is definitely room for better ways than we currently have of approaching teaching languages.
About the Author
Laura Albero graduated in Applied Languages, including modern languages, and language acquisition. She holds a postgraduate research qualification; her research interests include discourse analysis, sociolinguistics and psychology.