As someone whose entire career is based around languages, I feel very passionately about the subject of language teaching reform. Therefore, with entry to ‘other’ languages at GCSE (including Italian and Polish) down by 23% this year1 and entry to German GCSE down by 10%, I feel that now is the time to act.
How are languages taught in the UK?
It has been almost ten years since I left the lower education system in the UK, but little appears to have changed since then. However, while I didn’t learn a language at primary school, it is, at least, now part of the curriculum for 7-14 year olds2.Nonetheless, from anecdotal experience, this is often taught by teachers who have little grasp of a foreign language. Additionally, many schools (both primary and secondary) teach one or more of French, German and Spanish3. In my experience, this leads to confusion among the students and a poor grasp of the language by GCSE age, even among the most intelligent students. With the introduction of the English Baccalaureate in 20104, many more pupils have been forced to continue a language post-KS3, despite the poor grounding they have been given. Fortunately, I only studied two languages consistently in Key Stage 3. Still, I was expected to achieve the same grade in both French and German, despite only having two and one hour of teaching per week, respectively. This was in comparison to the two hours per week that most of my classmates enjoyed. As we can see from this brief summary, it is clear why intake to language GCSEs has fallen.
The case for a reform in language teaching
As such, I think there is a case for a language teaching reform in the UK. From my experience as a student and my husband’s as a secondary school teacher with colleagues in language departments, language lessons are often the most poorly controlled, and students often engage with these classes the least. This could be due to the focus on grammar and vocabulary (often learned by rote) over useability and the fact that the students cannot relate to their subject.
How do we reform language teaching?
If it were down to me (which it is not!), I would reform languages in several ways.
Streamlining language teaching between primary and secondary school
Firstly, I would have the schools within a community (whether this is a county or a city) meet to ensure that the same language is taught by primary feeder schools and the secondary school they are feeding into.
Choosing a language with a ‘connection’ to the community
Secondly, I would suggest choosing a variety of languages. Most school children have no connection to French or Spanish and, therefore, it is understandable that they wouldn’t engage with it. Instead, I would propose picking a language that means something to the local community. For example, there are many Polish migrants in my local area of Norwich, so perhaps Polish would work, as the students would be able to communicate with classmates in their native language. In somewhere like Birmingham, Punjabi or Arabic might engender further understanding of their wider community. In Wales, I see no reason not to teach children Welsh to link them to their heritage. It doesn’t matter what language a child learns; for the most part, secondary school students won’t be taking their language on to higher education (unfortunately, uptake in language degrees has also fallen in recent years5). Instead, we should encourage a general interest in languages and give them the tools to learn any language, whether that’s an ab initio course at university, an adult class later in life or picking up a smattering from an app like Duolingo.
Focus on language use, not rote learning
Finally, I think we should change the way we approach languages. Instead of worrying about learning vocabulary or grammar by rote, we should encourage the children to use and speak the language as quickly as possible. In this vein, I was very sorry to hear that oral exams are being axed from GSCEs and ‘A’ Levels6. While they are the least enjoyable part of exam season, speaking a language is how most people will use it.
I think part of the issue is that we expect our students to come out with perfectly formed, grammatical sentences when this isn’t possible. Instead, we should encourage students to explore and gain confidence in speaking a foreign language, and not worry about making mistakes. Verb conjugation and syntax can come later – focus on using whatever vocabulary you have. Also, make it relevant to the students – if they’re learning a community language, teach them how to compliment a host on a delicious meal. If they’re learning a language that might serve them on a foreign holiday, teach them the basics of directions and hotel reservations. If it’s a useful language for the business world, teach them vocab for a meeting.
Furthermore, we should also bring more culture into our teaching. In an issue of CIOL’s The Linguist magazine from last year, there was an article on a public school doing just this, and I think it’s something we could implement in state schools too. Link their language learning to an upcoming school trip, organise an afternoon at an art-house cinema to see a recent foreign release or read an extract of a famous book or some poetry. You don’t just have to stick to classics – exposing children to contemporary culture in the target country will encourage them to think about the lives of people their own age in other countries.
So those would be my suggestions for reforming our language teaching system in the UK. Do you agree? Is there anything else you would suggest? Let me know in the comments below. And if you’re getting stuck into your own language learning journey, contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org for information on my French tutoring sessions.
1 “GCSEs and A-levels: 7 key trends from provisional 2021 entries data”, Samantha Booth, 27 May 2021, Source: https://schoolsweek.co.uk/gcses-and-a-levels-7-key-trends-from-provisional-2021-entries-data/
2 “Language teaching in schools (England)”, Philip Loft, Robert Long and Shadi Danechi, 17 January 2020, Source: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-7388/
4 “English Baccalaureate: Equity Analysis”, Department for Education, July 2017, Source: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/630205/EBacc-equia-July_17.pdf
5 “Modern languages in decline at university but “crucial” for post-Brexit UK”, Tomas Hill Lopez-Menchero, 1 June 2021, Source: https://www.swlondoner.co.uk/news/01062021-modern-languages-in-decline-at-university-but-crucial-for-post-brexit-uk/
6 “Oral exam dropped from language GCSEs and A-levels for 2022”, Robbie Meredith, 28 May 2021, Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-57274974