by Lewis Wells
Students are dropping languages in their thousands. Here’s what needs to change.
I’ve always had a passion for languages, whether that stems from my participation in French classes in my junior academy and winning little prizes, or my interest in gaining an advantage over others and finding my niche in beginning German through secondary school, the overall concept of language-learning and cultural enrichment is what drives me academically. As mathematics, science and humanities does for pupils more adequately suited to their learning and driven by their results within.
That does however not go to say that the absence of linguistic flair or “being a natural” makes you unable to learn, enjoy or solidify language learning. I’ve witnessed through 5 years of being within a state secondary school with albeit an enthusiastic and resourceful department, uninterested, bored and distraught pupils, relishing the day when they can finally throw that language away. I don’t think that the fault lies with teaching or pupils. Sure, the cogs all work in sync, but the general direction of such a trend originates from the examboards themselves. I don’t think the examboards have created exams in which more linguistically driven pupils excel or are rewarded; I think they are poorly crafted, monotonous exams that reward a variety of random skills that detract from the overall concept and reward of language learning — memory, pace of information absorption, excessive and untapped grammar, the list goes on.
“I don’t think that the fault lies with teaching or pupils”
No, I don’t encourage the exam board to dispel all these skills, rather that they should programme a set of exams that is equally enjoyable as it is challenging. As a population we are moving away from facilitating subjects either towards a firm mathematical and science-based field, or the world of newly-originating subjects and their world-of-work revolving creation. The GCSEs freshly mobilised by the former Secretary for Education I have no experience with, save for the understanding that one is expected to write instantaneously in their exams for a passage, and answer in their target language more often. Ideas most sensical given the nature of what one would be expected to do within higher education for languages. But wait, no one really is progressing to these higher educational opportunities anymore, so why are we teasing pupils at younger ages, with the expectation that they will revolt the trend and suddenly discover fascination for the field once again?
“They should programme a set of exams that is equally enjoyable as it is challenging”
No. We need to be in one way bribing our pupils at young ages with the endless possibilities to language learn. One example, that we learn as we do with our own. There is no shred of content within our current primary courses that places focus on listening to the Radio, watching television, reading the news or simply discovering art and culture of the target language nations. Why don’t we ask our pupils to make posters, draw something, find out something our teachers may not know of, to highlight the scope of language learning and the cultural enrichment such a feat unlocks (that all counts towards something as well)? We need to remove the chains, per se, in enabling our pupils to tackle their challenging tasks without the structural limitations, word counts, time limits, that make language learning robotic and quite frankly, stressful. I want to see classes with every pupil working differently, uniquely, independently, with the confidence that their individual interest within languages is welcomed and applicable in at least a few purposeful tasks in their overall GCSE.
“We need to be in one way bribing our pupils at young ages with the endless possibilities to language learn”
Perhaps, with AQA, we reduce the number of writing and speaking assessments to one each from 2, and give the resulting percentages towards the introductory comprehension of a book, or the development of a piece of art, photography or external research that gives pupils a more stimulating passage of their GCSE to look forward to. Our reading and listening exams give light to recycled contexts that aren’t necessary useful in the event one goes to their country where this language is spoken, so why don’t we have exams that teach us about signage and the first-hand experiences and pitfalls for tourists and language learners in their target countries? Our current exams have activities based around Animal Cruelty and racial discrimination, as if our exams are trying to model us as politically informed, whilst our pupils complain they lack the vocabulary needed to demonstrate sufficient capacity in tackling that area. Furthermore, we must teach the usefulness of dictionary using, whilst banging the drum on the array of modern, insightful apps on our App Stores that challenge Google Translate and add context, conjugation and reference to our search for vocabulary and precise phrase translation. Above all else, let’s try some other languages, shall we? The use for French, Spanish and German is above most others as a result of our geographical proximity, international relationship and general provision of employment opportunities, but why not set our pupils up with more distant and obscure links for the future? Modern Hebrew, Dutch, Danish, Afrikaans, even a Swiss interpretation of the three languages listed above? Such language learning would be even more successful if engineered alongside partnerships with select nations, with opportunities to visit and work and the more provided should they foster continued work with these languages in higher education.
“Why not set our pupils up with more distant and obscure links for the future?”
Fewer pupils are completing the English Baccalaureate, which includes one foreign language. Pupils are being forced onto simplified and quite frankly dull, pointless, alternative versions of a Higher GCSE. Why not just create the same GCSE option, regardless of expected attainment, for which we can all contest? With children academically disadvantaged, per learning difficulties or contextual difference, why not remove an element from the GCSE or switch others around to increase the likelihood of success for these pupils? The majority of my friends at secondary school occupied the second set for ability in German, with 4 sets in general. They predominantly failed to meet a C in the pre-GCSE mocks in December. However, instead of creating rigorous plans of action and inspiring them with the potential for turn-around, they were all placed on the “Foundation GCSE” programme, in which the highest attainable grade was a C. This is far easier to work with, to challenge for a C, than contest in the higher programme and fail at the hurdle to attain a mere D. Still, I saw such potential in many within the class and felt the hindrance illustrated my negative opinion of the system further.
“Why not just create the same GCSE option, regardless of expected attainment, for which we can all contest?”
We know that languages are on the out. Just recently a friend of mine ditched both languages at the halfway A-Level stage, lacking the motivation to retain at least one as a result of ‘disappointing’ results. I can’t convince her any more than I do, but exam boards and the board for Education, who train our language learning until 18, well, they can. The opportunity for experimentation awaits us, and very much expects us, given our so far lacklustre response to the beaming negative statistics. I admire those that combine at least one language alongside their triple science, mathematical, or arts-based A-Level choices, even when they tell me they have no interest in studying languages at University. Regardless, the fact you could work for this select company abroad, or even mention your language proficiency in your future job interviews, should boost us on and make us smile. My friends in Europe with 2 or 3 languages under their belt fail to see why multilingualism is extremely admired; they see such acquisition as normal, natural practice. If only we could reach that level of humbleness, having developed our enthusiasm for such a feat from our state schooling, in which we are encouraged and not put off learning new languages, and there are plenty of ways in which this could take place.
Lewis Wells is a Student Affiliate at the Chartered Institute of Linguists