Whatever your feelings are on the current state of language learning in schools, the rather pitiful reality is that in January 2021, the UK has quite possibly never been in such a dire situation. The fact is that we in the UK are languishing near the bottom of the pile in the national league of linguistic ability. A report from The Pie News last January highlighted just how serious the situation had become. A Higher Education Policy Report indicated that a mere 32% of 16-30 year olds in the UK feel confident when reading or writing in another language – a staggeringly low amount especially when compared with the EU average of 89%.
So how has this come about? Perhaps the most obvious reason for this is cultural. Our geography, history, and politics has shaped our behaviour as an island race and determined our level of interaction with others. In the 19th Century, Global Britain preferred to seek its interests further afield than in Europe in its affairs with its colonies. The British had little time for the more ‘parochial’ politics involved on its European doorstep. The idea that because English has gradually become the ‘lingua franca’ has allowed us to become complacent in how we go about communicating and dealing with others. More recently, decisions taken, (or indeed not taken), at the highest level by successive UK governments have not helped the cause of languages either. In the majority of UK schools, languages are no longer compulsory. This is a great shame as in the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘the limits of one’s language are the limits of one’s world’.
If we do not start to look at the more positive aspects of language learning as a Nation then we perhaps risk becoming less of a key player on the World Stage. If Brexit Britain has truly global ambitions, we should broaden our horizons in terms of the opportunities that may exist if we open our minds to them. An article from the Guardian written back on 10 December 2013 suggested that our language skills deficit costs the UK approximately £48 billion/year and it would appear that language learning in schools has been on a continual downward spiral since then. This is a significant amount if we look at this in purely financial terms but there is, I believe, an even bigger loss which is to deprive generations of young people with the joy and wealth of opportunities that learning a language can involve. Language learning should not be seen as a means to an end, (such as simply passing an exam), but as a voyage of discovery not only of oneself but of the surrounding world. Furthermore, graduates with language skills are highly prized in today’s workplace.
Unfortunately, rather too many modern-day British kids consider languages as being difficult, boring or pointless. Many have negative pre-conceptions of languages even before entering the classroom. This is a great shame – we have some fantastic teachers and incredible technological resources available which should be spurring on language learning not thwarting it. Perhaps we need to have a more serious national rethink on language learning in our schools?
Developing a child’s language skills will also help them become more confident human beings.
So how are we going to achieve all this? Here are just a few ideas (but I’m sure there are many more!);
- Make language-learning mandatory at GCSE for all students. (Don’t give them the easy option – which is to drop languages).
- Create a government guru to oversee language learning in schools.
- Either renationalize the exam board or ensure that Ofqual give less leeway for exam boards to deviate in terms of syllabi.
- Rethink the syllabus at GCSE? Allow for wider learning. . ..
- Use CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) – this has been a proven success in schools where 2nd language learning in subjects such as Geography and History has significantly boosted academic performances in schools. It can be done!
- Introduce literacy in a foreign language at an earlier age. This may seem impossible for some especially when kids may not read much in their own language but it can be done if there is the will to do so!
- Create after-school language or reading clubs and Head Teachers should provide more support for language teachers.
- Don’t be afraid to use technology or Apps in the classroom or for self-study.
- Stress the importance of language-learning in Careers at an earlier age.
- Create a ‘portfolio of skills’ for students which they can develop from a younger age, (why not at Key Stage 3) – and work with their schools to develop these skills – this should include learning a language.
- Make language-learning fun and engaging! Why not have a rethink on how we teach language to make it more worthwhile and contextualised? What about learning languages systematically through stories?
There are, I am sure, many other points that could be mentioned, and I welcome any comments you might have about this. The goal is to create better language skills and learning within our schools.
In February’s Blog we will be looking directly at practical steps on how to improve language skills both within the classroom and through self-study.
Stay safe and well and see you soon!
(PS. Our first book should be appearing in February!)