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Community of voices

The many languages spoken in our society are the subject of a large-scale education survey. Teresa Tinsley and Tamzin Caffrey explain

We have traditionally made a distinction between "modern foreign languages" taught in schools (French, German, Spanish, Italian) and "community languages" used by ethnic minority communities. The clarity of this distinction is beginning to become blurred. On the one hand we have, for example, African and north African pupils who speak French before they arrive in the classroom, and on the other we have a growth of interest in teaching languages such as Chinese and Arabic for wider cultural and economic purposes.

The need for social inclusion and the recognition of the growing utility of community languages in public services is bringing languages such as Panjabi and Urdu more into the mainstream, where they are being offered as curriculum options alongside French and Spanish. These languages have been growing at GCSE over the past few years - albeit from a small base - while French and German are declining.

With 10.5 per cent of English primary school children and 8.8 per cent of secondary school students speaking another language at home, and with these figures rising year on year, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a convincing case for the study of a foreign language without explicit recognition of the existing skills of these bilingual learners. It is crucial that the importance of this often hidden language resource is recognised, not least by the pupils themselves.

CILT, the National Centre for Languages, is currently conducting the first national survey of the teaching of community languages, covering both the mainstream and voluntary sectors. The study, which is being co-ordinated by our colleagues at Scottish CILT, at Stirling University, seeks to find out how much these languages are supported and developed, and the contribution they make to individual achievement. The findings, to be published in the autumn, will provide a picture of provision for community language learning across England, Scotland and Wales and contribute to a Europe-wide project to be completed by 2007.

Co-ordinated by Joanna McPake of SCILT and Teresa Tinsley of CILT, on behalf of the Council of Europe's European Centre for Modern Languages, the Valuing All Languages in Europe (VALEUR) project aims to map community language provision across Europe and identify good practice to support policy development.

Recent policy statements at both European and national level have shown a shift towards a more "plurilingual" stance, as evidenced in the EU's new Action Plan for Languages, "Promoting Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity". At the CILT Primary Languages Show last year, schools minister Stephen Twigg encouraged delegates to draw on the linguistic resources closest to them, saying: "Part of enthusing schools is allowing schools to make the most efficient use of what they have got and giving them scope to tap into the wealth of experience and knowledge in their communities."

The National Languages Strategy itself has a number of key elements that further emphasise the essential role of community languages in England, one of which is their inclusion in all phases of the development of the Languages Ladder, a voluntary recognition scheme for languages which is scheduled for national roll out in autumn 2005.

The ladder's initial languages include Chinese, Japanese, Panjabi and Urdu, alongside the expected French, German, Italian and Spanish. A year later, additional languages are likely to be Arabic, Bengali, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Irish, Modern Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Swedish, Tamil, Turkish, Welsh and Yoruba.

The primary entitlement to language learning - the cornerstone of the Government's National Languages Strategy - allows schools flexibility in choosing which language to introduce to its young learners and presents an excellent opportunity to raise the profile of community languages, in areas where these have a strong base. It is essential to recognise the benefits of language learning in terms of oracy, literacy, language awareness and cultural understanding (the four strands being developed as part of a framework for languages in key stage 2), as well as looking to the future and the growing opportunities to use languages in the complex multicultural jobs market.


* Schools and colleges already teaching community languages, as well as those interested in introducing them at any level, can draw on the range of support services offered by CILT and its key partners. From the website's community languages pages teachers can access a wealth of advice and information on training and events, contact community language specialists, find publications and keep abreast of the latest developments. Interested parties can also sign up to receive the Community Languages bulletin, published twice a year.

The Community Languages Forum is an email discussion group, which aims to provide information, support professional development at all levels and facilitate networking between practitioners and is open to anyone involved in teaching community languages.

* Websites

CILT community languages pages

Community Languages survey



European Award for Languages

Languages Ladder

Tamzin Caffrey is communications co-ordinator and Teresa Tinsley is director of communications at CILT, the National Centre for Languages

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