Now that English has been acknowledged as the official language for the European Community the future for foreign language teaching in British schools could be even more endangered. There is already a shortage of skilled teachers and persuading students to take an interest in a subject that can appear boring and difficult brings further erosion in class sizes and provision. Tring school in Hertfordshire offers an example of how languages can not only flourish as separate subjects but also interact with the whole school.
Although languages are well established at Tring, with both German and French taught in key stage 3 and an option in key stage 4, in common with most schools we face the challenge of persuading pupils that foreign languages are important for their future. Thinking globally, to many young minds, means thinking in English and the barrier in lessons is not the pupils' ability but their preconceptions before they enter the modern language classroom.
It was to raise the profile of languages in the curriculum, show them in a different light, involve as many students as possible and use as many languages as feasible that the Multicultural Shakespeare Assembly was born. A language club was already flourishing and became the source of the volunteer actors. Tring school staff have considerable linguistic ability and we could draw on German, French, Spanish, Italian and Serbo Croat as fluently spoken or mother-tongue languages. We decided to dramatise a short scene from Macbeth, currently being studied by Year 10 for their coursework.
The drama club would perform in the original English, then performances in the other languages would follow. Each language group would be free to interpret their production in any way they felt appropriate to their culture. The volunteers, many starting the language from scratch, ranged from Years 7 to 12 and had two months with their teachers to prepare their mini production, which would eventually be presented in a series of four assemblies to the entire school.
"Double, double toil and trouble" began to reverberate in its many versions through the corridors and the finl result was spectacular. The English version set the scene, followed by sombreroed hags with castanettes, weird Italian sisters, French sorci res and sweet German frAuleins in dirndls who suddenly became Hexen. The real stars, however, were the Serbo Croat septet whose amazing (and, we were assured, accurate) accents seemed made for curses and a cauldron. The final scene, with 45 witches all intoning "Double, double toil and trouble" in their chosen language as they approached the audience to drum beats, invariably brought the house down.
As a 30-minute exercise in raising awareness of language this was successful on a number of levels. The language department worked with colleagues from other departments. Individual students benefited from a broadening of their understanding of languages other than German and French. One student wrote: "It was not very difficult remembering words but I had to roll my Rs properly."
Students who took part went to a great deal of trouble to perfect their accents. It was the first time many of them had performed in front of an audience since primary school and the dramatic interpretation required not only acting but costumes and music as well. The whole school was involved. The pupils seemed mesmerised by the sounds of the languages and, after each assembly, returned to their lessons fuelled with questions and admiration for the language skills of the participants.
In many cases they were amazed that Shakespeare exists in so many translations and in such a variety of interpretations.
The concept is a fairly simple one that can be used with different scenes from Shakespeare or other source material. To be successful the extract needs to be short, dramatic and allow variety. The witches scene has exactly these qualities.
Was this a successful one-off or could it become a tradition? The modern languages department can now harness the students' enthusiasm and interest with a follow-up strategy, not only to keep modern languages as a talking point but also encourage the kind of good practice in the classroom that motivates. The cauldron must go on bubbling!
Totty Aris is a teacher at Tring school, Hertfordshire