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Primary Education News
News Languages in UK schools: where we are vs where we need to be
What more could and should we be doing with languages in schools? Louise Tickle takes a look at the language learning landscape in the UK
Learning a foreign language is difficult, right? Well, yes it is if you start at 11, only do it for three years, get the bare minimum of curriculum time, have your classes so spaced out that you forget what you learned last Wednesday when it comes to the next lesson on Tuesday, and never get to apply your skills, so it's all theory and no practice (let alone pleasure).
This is pretty much how schoolchildren in the state sector are taught modern foreign languages in the UK. And according to Dr Robert Crawshaw, head of European languages and culture at Lancaster university, it means that the state of language learning is "very variegated" across the country.
Partly, he says, this is due to the different types of school, "which determines the size of the sixth form which in turn dictates the type of provision."
It's also partly due to which exam board the school uses, "because language teaching in secondary tends to be very much exam driven."
No child in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland has to learn a modern foreign language before they start secondary. And since 2004 when it became optional to take a modern language exam at GCSE, it's only compulsory to carry on till age 14.
Even if a pupil does opt to take the GCSE, what's required to pass comes in for criticism.
"Many language teachers in secondary schools are heartily sick of the formulaic format of GCSE exams which all too easily has the effect of stifling the motivation of students with the greatest potential for advanced language learning," says Crawshaw.
His view is echoed by Dr Jim Anderson, senior lecturer in languages in education at Goldsmiths. "The GCSE exam is very narrow: it lacks interesting content and appropriate tasks," he says. This probably contributes to the fact that "fewer than 10% are doing any sort of language learning after GCSE."
While all pupils in Wales must learn Welsh from reception to GCSE and then take an exam, there's a 'short course' option within the GCSE in Welsh as a second language, which Julie Brake, senior lecturer in Welsh at Glyndwr university says "is not taken seriously at all."
There is, she says, a "lack of Welsh speaking teachers, and the number of hours devoted to that course varies between schools. In some it's just an hour a fortnight. Many are leaving school without very good Welsh language skills."
This is unfortunate, given that all public sector services in Wales are required by law to deliver in Welsh and English, so any bilingual job applicant will have an advantage.
The focus on learning Welsh early hasn't, however, been replicated for other foreign languages that might benefit children in Wales in the jobs market elsewhere. Ceri James, director of Wales' National Centre for Languages which carried out a six year long "very successful" pilot on language teaching in primary which was nevertheless not rolled out, says that "there is no momentum here for primary languages. It's not statutory in primary; it depends entirely on the school."
The situation is the same in Scotland, though there is currently a consultation on recommendations that all children should have the chance to study two foreign languages as well as English from primary onwards.
"People's concerns are how we will be able to implement that; will we have enough teachers?" explains Dr Lore Gallastegi, lecturer in the faculty of education and language studies at the Open University.
Investment in teacher training and motivating students to keep at it through the difficult, boring bits, are, say the experts, key to making genuine progress, no matter when a child starts learning a language.
But apart from a few scattered initiatives - Professor Do Coyle of Aberdeen university has, for instance, set up the first PGCE specifically training teachers in bilingual education, the Association for Language Learning's FLAME project promotes combining languages with other subjects, and the British Council's Connecting Classrooms project gives pupils a chance to enjoy communicating with their peers in other cultures - it seems nothing statutory is set to improve anytime soon.
"Languages are not high on anyone's agenda and are not seen as a core subject," says Crawshaw - an opinion the new draft primary and secondary national curriculum appears to confirm.
"As far as languages are concerned, [the draft curricula] lack any basis for understanding progression in language teaching," comments Anderson. "For people entering the profession it will be confusing and unhelpful."
That the UK is not a place where bilingual ability is valued is demonstrated again in the attitude to the tens of thousands children who do arrive at school with abilities in another language, he observes.
"The potential for children to reach high levels of competence in these languages is not recognised or supported by government - in the new national curriculum, there is no mention of bilingual learners who have the opportunity to learn languages at home and no plan for how these languages could be shared in the classroom." In a country which has attracted migrants from across the world, this means that in two or three generations, children with migrant heritage grow up to be monolingual, or only conversationally functional in the language spoken by their parents or grandparents.
In other countries, experts point out, young children don't just do more hours of language learning, they are also taught some of their other subjects through the medium of that language.
This type of immersion would instantly improve curriculum content, suggests Anderson, who says that on a recent visit to the USA, he saw primary age children being taught other subjects half in English and half in Chinese, which they had been learning from nursery upwards.
There's enormous motivation to be gained by learning another subject in a language that you're studying - not least because it takes the pressure off striving for perfection in grammar and syntax, and allows students to enjoy their growing ability to understand and communicate.
But given the many blocks to students achieving at a foreign language in the UK, it's hardly surprising that there's been a dramatic drop off in numbers of students choosing to continue post-GCSE. The ever decreasing pool of pupils keen to develop language skills now serves the UK poorly when it comes to deepening our understanding of other people and societies, believes Crawshaw.
"Learning a foreign language definitely makes you think about cultural differences, and the fact that other people are radically different," he says. "To be more aware of otherness is certainly one of the side effects of learning a foreign language which is not regarded at the moment as one of the core aspects of primary and secondary language learning."
It also has depressing implications for the UK's chances of competing in an increasingly internationalised employment market.
Vicky Gough, schools adviser for the British Council says that in the organisation's recent survey of worldwide companies, it was clear that they believed good language skills improved employability and intercultural fluency. These employers didn't just value the bare ability to function in another language, she explains, but also felt that "being able to adapt what you're saying in different ways, having cultural sensitivity and also having an awareness of your own culture," were critical skills for anyone who wanted to work outside their country of origin - all of which are fostered by learning a language.
When a 2012 European Commission report on "Language competences for employability, mobility and growth" notes that "the share of pupils reaching the level of 'independent user' in the first foreign language varies from 9% in England to 82% in Sweden" there seems to be only one conclusion: when it comes to modern foreign languages, the UK "must do better".