Primary MFL: why we teach

24th October 2016 at 15:01

Subject Genius, Ben Powell, Primary MFL: why we teach

So, here goes my first ever blog entry! I am predicting an online collection of teachery ramblings, but maybe something I say from time to time may actually end up being of use to someone out there one day.

My name is Ben and I am a qualified MFL teacher with experience in teaching French, ESL and Mandarin. I am presently employed as a teacher of Mandarin in an independent school for everyone in Reception to Year 8 which means I have become a rather bipolar kind of practitioner, one day singing songs and cuddling teddy bears and the next dealing with a class full of ‘dabbers’ (if your school has not picked up on this stupid meme yet then lucky you!) who like to dish out the ‘banter’ like it’s going out of fashion.

I thought I would write my first post about why we teach Mandarin and how MFL fits into the wider curriculum. At my school, like most primaries, we have one lesson of Mandarin (and French) a week and don’t actually go on to take exams later down the road. Although I teach to Year 8, I describe myself as a primary school teacher and will probably base a lot of my writings on those experiences. So why Mandarin? With such little lesson time, what’s the point? Like it or not, all primary schools must now teach some MFL and it can become easy to lose focus of the end goal. If you are responsible for setting up a new MFL course you will be forgiven for wondering how you can make any progress in such a short time and your hard work may be all forgotten when your pupils move to ‘big school’ and start learning a different language from scratch instead. Never fear! Despite not being able to get your pupils to fluency by Year 6, primary MFL is truly a precious gift for a child’s education, so let’s look at 3 of the main purposes and benefits of primary MFL teaching:

Subject Genius, Ben Powell, Primary MFL: why we teach

1.    Cultural understanding - This is an obvious one, but can often be neglected. As a primary MFL teacher you have the luxury of being able to focus on the periphery advantages of MFL without being pressed by GCSE requirements. Use your lessons to go on the cultural offensive! Dedicate serious time to discussing festivals, traditions, current affairs (yes, even for 8 year olds) and fairy tales, the list goes on. You will find that children love learning interesting facts about the target culture and will then become inspired to put in the hard work later on when the focus switches to cold, hard vocab learning. This also adds something useful to those who will inevitably go on to dropping the language completely as they will at least have a sense of ‘cultural currency’ which can be used in the real world. Personally I set this as a number one priority.


2.    An introduction to linguistics - As the classic line of the beleaguered MFL teacher goes: “learning X language will also help you understand your own,”.  Yes, this is true, but who cares? Unless you are a fellow linguist, this won’t be of much interest to you, so it is up to the MFL teacher to make it interesting. I try to be as academic as possible with my children and give them as much information as possible about the origins of words, connections with other languages, how to focus on the correct muscles in order to produce a more native sound and anything else that comes to mind. On paper it sounds dry, but if delivered properly you’ll find that your children will find it as interesting as you do and will want to learn more. I once had a really long conversation with Year 6 about the origins of Chinese punctuation and how and why it basically copies English rules. This explanation led to discussions on colonialism, Communist revolutions, World War 2 and the nature of language evolution. Trust me on this one, even the die-hard language haters were interested in this one. So next time you are able to elaborate on something seemingly dry, just give it a go.


3.    The gift of speech - Of course, the main purpose of MFL learning is knowing how to speak to others. Once pupils find out that they can actually communicate in a foreign language and be understood they will want more. I was once lucky enough to have a Chinese colleague observe a Reception class. They had just learnt how to say ‘hello’ and ‘my name is’ and I used the opportunity to get them to try out these new phrases with her. The results were amazing. These 4 year old children looked unbelievably proud of themselves when my colleague responded and they actually understood. It was a moment of realisation that they can understand ‘foreign’ and begin to enter the exclusive club of ‘foreign’ speakers and turn these funny noises into real meaning. There was a certain magic there when the children saw that they can enter a different universe and interact with it by themselves which is something I strive to replicate (native colleagues not necessary).


Of course there are many more reasons but these were just the first points that came to mind. I could have written more but I doubt many people will have got to the end of this post as it is.



Ben Powell teaches primary Mandarin in the independent sector.