One of the problems facing MFL teachers is the argument from some that there are few explicit roles for linguists. We know that having a language teaches you skills not covered in other subjects and makes you more employable in any field. However, the argument, foolish though it is, persists. Interpreter, translator, languages teacher: few would assume accountant and maths teacher were the only obvious roles for mathematicians, but the reality is that other subjects don't have the same PR problem as languages.
So how do we open up a world of possibilities to those we've already been trying to open metaphorical windows for and just haven't managed to thus far? When budgets are stretched and our time swallowed whole by other commitments, we have to adapt what we're doing to meet the challenges we, as linguists, face in school. One of the most practical ways of doing this is the cross-curricular route and for me, personally, it was the introduction of a languages film club.
In reality, it should have been a languages and media club or something more flashy entirely, but it was the title that stuck. There were a few aims I set. Firstly, that students have the opportunity to enjoy languages in a non-assessed environment, simply languages in and of themselves. Secondly, I wanted to make it more appealing, to offer languages enrichment to the kind of students who might not ordinarily chose to engage with languages beyond the classroom. Finally, I wanted there to be something special, but so carefully woven into the project that the students involved would see broader possibilities for languages without being explicitly told what they could do with them on leaving school.
The success of this club was largely down to the equipment. I'd love to say it was the opportunity to better converse in German, French or Spanish or the sudden realisation that languages open up a whole word of possibilities, but the reality was the boom. The Languages Film Club was not about watching films in other languages. It was about making films in other languages. The group gathered for the first time. They weren’t sure whether they'd come again the following week, but then I brought out the big guys, or more precisely, the boom with a large fluffy microphone at the end of it. They were hooked. Everyone wanted a go and they waited patiently, week after week, to play with it again and again.
With a trusted student carefully stewarding the boom and mic’s protection, the group started. First, we considered the basics of film studies; composition, the benefits of using a close-up for this, a mid shot for that. They learnt what these words meant and how to say them in their various languages (for at this point, they were a mixed group). Already, they had the lingo and the gear. You could see, they were starting to feel like pros.
Then came the practical element. I have smaller cameras. We could have used mobiles, the technology's so good, but I brought the biggest, most professional camera I have. I know it was a risk and I know not everyone happens to have a film camera at home. This is my hobby and I'm playing to my strengths, but phones are fine and if you want to produce something more professional, this is a great way of collaborating with your media department. My students know my camera's precious to me and throughout, they treated it with the reverence it deserves; protecting it from the threat of falls, bumps, scrapes and the carelessness of passers-by. It was another opportunity for me to feel proud of them.
Once they were confident with the technology and secure with the theory, we got down to the practice. What kind of films were they going to make? A black and white art house piece, given their incredible imaginations, would, I'm sure, have been amazing, but for practical reasons, our films were interviews. Wanting to open a window on the world for them, I asked three very generous linguists, who each speak one of the club's languages, if they would allow the students to interview them and film the interview. Everyone agreed instantly. Each work in a different field; one in sport (Spanish), one in business (German) and one in politics (French). Before they came in, the students, in one of three language groups, practised writing and honing questions, and thinking through how to deal with possible responses. They took turns filming each other, checking the position of the camera, whether or not the sound was audible, if it all worked as a piece or whether or not they needed to start from square one. Wherever possible, this was done in the target language. They'd learnt how to express their opinion, positions and directions in class. Now they had technical terminology too. They loved having sufficient vocabulary to discuss their problems or successes, the ability to talk about something which wasn't directly connected to their schoolwork, which wouldn't be formally assessed, so they could relax and enjoy their talents a little bit more.
The big days arrived and we had to rely on the goodwill of other departments a little. The interviews didn't take long and we tried to schedule them during lunch but obviously, our guests were giving up their time to help us, so we had to meet them at their convenience. It meant the Languages Film Club might miss part of a lesson, but they're good students and they know to catch up. I didn't want this to become disruptive to other lessons, but I and my colleagues can see the benefit of enrichment such as this. The guests arrived and each time, the students were a little in awe of them. They were incredibly polite, fantastic ambassadors of their school and, when they were speaking in English, a little bit shy. That all changed as they made their final adjustments and the interviewers went over their questions with the other members of their language group. It was terrific to watch and reminded me that if you give students a challenge, they will rise to it. The interviews over, they all shook hands with the guest (each of them impressed both by their professionalism and enthusiasm for languages) and waved them goodbye, thrilled that they'd done something on record, something that would make them stand out, something they didn't imagine they'd be doing at school.
The following week, we debriefed. What had they learnt? Their vocabulary had broadened and their use of conversational language improved. They knew more about media techniques and they'd met interesting new people. They'd also seen how studying languages can take you anywhere, in any direction you wish to go. Aims all checked, I congratulated them on their hard work and having completed the mission set for them. 'Thanks, Miss. But what are we filming next?'
Dr Clare Owen is a teacher and education consultant in London.