Having taught languages in England for over 30 years I have seen many changes, worked with and observed superb teachers, and experienced countless success stories of students completing their A Levels and going onto university or use their language competence in the workplace. These have been some of the greatest joys of my career. Sadly, there have also been many reluctant language learners; and this is nothing new – older colleagues in other professions recall their lack of interest in and motivation to learn languages at school. In many parts of the world, however, there is an expectation that children will grow up learning not just one, but two additional languages. We need to question why there are different attitudes here in Britain.
Parents in Europe and those arriving here from other continents have different attitudes to learning languages. They are keener for their children to be able to work abroad if necessary or in international firms. Is this the key? As we have seen in the recent CfBT Language Trends Report, attitudes to language learning do need changing. But how? Raising the profile of language learning is not going to be easy, but if Britain is to trade efficiently, something needs to be done! How can head teachers be persuaded to allocate more time to language learning to ensure that students have a greater sense of success? How can governors be influenced?
Keep it real
Linguists believe that their lives are enriched by learning languages and that developing an understanding of culture and tolerant attitudes and empathy towards others should be part of the curriculum. Students need to see a reason to learn another language. Feedback indicates that they do not choose study beyond KS3 and KS4 because they do not learn to speak and write relevant things. One student told me, “We don’t get to talk about what we want to talk about, what will be useful to us in adult life or in our jobs.” Hopefully, the consultation process that has taken place prior to the development of the new A Level and GCSE specifications will help with this.
There must be a long term vision. The government should plan strategically and think ahead. There needs to be enough investment in training to ensure that there are sufficient teachers who are confident to teach languages. Some think that the ideal model in primary schools is via classroom teachers. There are a number of valid arguments in favour of this. They are experts in literacy and will know the grammar terminology that their students will know and understand. They can link the learning purposefully to other curriculum areas. They know their students well and therefore know the logical steps that they need to take to experience success. However, this isn’t a case of one model fits all. I have seen many schools successfully employ a peripatetic teacher of languages or use a confident linguist to teach across KS2. Building on the learning in KS2 and growing language awareness is vital. Students who repeat too much in KS3 and are not challenged soon lose interest.
Funding should therefore be provided for quality teacher training. Teachers in all sectors also deserve access to ongoing CPD.
If as a nation we are striving for successful language learning, politicians need to act on the models they have looked at from other countries. As in the fields of engineering, science, and medicine, teachers here should benefit from worldwide research. Another suggestion that is already underway is for the different sectors to collaborate to raise the profile of language learning. We need to fight together for what we believe in, using every resource that will motivate and inspire our learners. The teaching of a language, interwoven with literacy, numeracy and other subjects like history, geography, science and art, will convey more than just vocabulary and grammar. If students are taught in engaging ways using some of the amazing resources now available, particularly from the internet and the cultural institutes, their learning will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
About the author
Liz Black is a languages consultant, tutor at York University, and co-author of KS3 Allez. She is on the ALL Executive Council and is a member of the Primary Steering Group. For more from Liz, visit her blog at mfl.oxfordschoolblogs.co.uk