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Why Don’t we Teach Useful, Real-Life Modern Foreign Languages Skills?

Languages are for life, not merely passing exams, insists Amanda Barton – so why don’t we teach them that way?

  • Why Don’t we Teach Useful, Real-Life Modern Foreign Languages Skills?

On holiday in Greece over the summer my 15-year-old son was delighted to come across a fellow drone flyer. When the two of them had finished their high-speed aerial acrobatics he began chatting to the teenage pilot who, it turned out, was from Austria.

An excellent opportunity for my son to hone his speaking skills in German? Not a chance. Beyond saying how fast his drone was able to travel, the German vocabulary acquired over four years of learning failed him miserably.

“I didn’t think he’d be interested in knowing what my views on marriage are, or when I last went to a restaurant,” he complained miserably afterwards.

How well the curriculum prepares young people to use the foreign languages they are learning, at home or overseas, is a particular bugbear of mine.

My PhD research on boys’ underachievement in MFL, completed in 2000, highlighted how important it is that languages are seen as relevant by students and that they can be used in a real context.

My findings concluded that learning a language for its own sake is not enough to motivate students, and especially boys; they must be able to see the practical value of their learning.

Redundant questions

Almost two decades later, and we still find ourselves teaching students to answer such uninspiring questions as ‘What do you use your mobile phone for?’ and ‘Can you describe your personality?’ Hardly burning questions for your average adolescent.

And when, my son frequently complains, is he ever, realistically, going to need to book a hotel in German?

The latest iteration of the GCSE exam promised to challenge students to use language more spontaneously. But the element of spontaneity is minimal.

Coaching Year 11 students for their speaking test, it’s clear to me that those who succeed are those who learn off by heart the answers to the questions without necessarily understanding what they’re saying. “What does this word mean?” I ask, to be met by a blank expression.

Limited appeal

Modern foreign languages teachers are clearly up against it. Since 2016, entries for GCSE in a MFL have fallen by 25,000 in spite of the government promoting the EBacc, which necessitates the study of a language.

A level language entries have also slumped; only 3,000 students sat an A level in German this year, a decrease of 16% on last year.

This decline has been linked to the severe grading of language GCSEs – but lack of interest in an inherently dull curriculum may be another factor which puts young people off.

The teacher who’s prepared to put their results on the line by teaching languages as a life skill, rather than teaching to the exam, is brave indeed when skill is a dirty word in today’s knowledge-driven curriculum.

Time to rethink

In my desperate attempts to find something positive on the Brexit horizon, I wonder whether languages will be promoted to ensure our economic prosperity.

Approaching an era when trade deals are being negotiated with nations who might be less inclined to make the effort to speak English, it’s worth recalling the words of former German Chancellor Willi Brandt, “If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen! [you must speak German].”

A bold re-think of the content of MFL syllabuses might help to revive languages. A number of primary schools around the country take a broader view of how they teach MFL by providing a language awareness programme.

This sets out to equip children with generic language learning skills by exposing them to a range of languages and drawing comparisons with English.

Such programmes also include study of the cultural context of the languages, an element currently neglected in the secondary curriculum.

A similar programme in secondary schools could also usefully incorporate a module on using English as a global language for effective communication with non-native speakers. Unless of course, it’s French, or Mandarin, that’s become the lingua franca…

Dr Amanda Barton is a writer, former MFL teacher and author of Getting the Buggers into Languages (Bloomsbury).

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