How to add an extra dimension to teaching languages

Teaching students languages without giving them the chance to chat with native speakers is like training a football team but never playing a competitive game, says MFL lead David Shanks. Get your pupils match fit with these simple strategies

David Shanks

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There are many reasons why learning a foreign language is important. These range from sheer enjoyment to wider economic arguments and also include educational, cognitive, social mobility and employability benefits, among others. Studies have even found that language learning has the potential to stave off dementia for four to five years – longer than any medication currently available.

And yet, it seems that language learning in Britain is in crisis. The UK languishes towards the bottom in league tables of European language competence; England’s modern and foreign languages (MFL) GCSE uptake levels have stagnated just below the 50 per cent mark; according to a review on behalf of the Teaching Schools Council, A-level languages study has witnessed a decline of “disastrous proportions”; and foreign exchange trips are going out of fashion.

Culture is key

Overcoming these challenges is no easy or short-term undertaking but education, and our approach to languages and cultural education, is absolutely key.

Developing and promoting cultural awareness is of paramount importance. The good news is that it can be exciting, engaging and rewarding, while also facilitating and reinforcing students’ language skills.

Any languages education that lacks opportunities for meaningful communication with speakers of other languages and cultural exchange will undermine the raison d’être of the subject, and ultimately negatively affect student motivation, confidence and outcomes. Just imagine a football team training three times a week for years but never playing a match.

Leadership-level support is imperative. Sufficient curriculum time, meaningful school trips and exchanges abroad, local events and projects with cinemas, businesses, museums, universities and language institutes, visits from languages undergraduates, theatre or dance companies and school-twinning programmes such as e-Twinning: these can all be game-changers for students’ development as individuals and their longer-term engagement and success in MFL.

Global citizens

A number of schools I work with are proud to be holders of the British Council’s International School Award and have found the globally recognised accreditation and framework very useful for providing direction, support and motivation in their international projects and connections. Students, teachers, school leaders and parents see it as a way to celebrate and demonstrate their school community’s commitment to being outward-looking, global citizens.

A common feature of the most successful MFL departments is the hosting and effective deployment of language assistants.These employees are excellent role models for students, as they provide a walking, talking embodiment of a language and its culture – something often difficult to achieve in a traditional classroom setting.

Five practical next steps for MFL teachers.

Amid timetable constraints and pressures to focus on linguistic competence for exams, busy teachers can struggle to find time and space for adding extra cultural dimensions to language learning. As such, here are some easy ways to do this immediately:

1. European Day of Languages

An easy starting point to boost the profile of languages and foreign culture in any school can be to run a school-wide celebration of the European Day of Languages every 26 September. This could take the form of assemblies, tutor time activities, a themed canteen menu, staff/student/parent-run language taster lessons, film screenings, poetry competitions, musical performances, cooking workshops, target language treasure hunts, guest speakers or a school-wide online Duolingo competition for both staff and students.

2. Network to find inspiration, ideas and resources

The #MFLTwitterati Twitter list, the Secondary MFL Matters and Languages in Primary Schools Facebook groups, MFL TeachMeets and the Association for Language Learning (ALL) are all active professional networks, full of excellent practitioners and innovative, culture-rich ideas and resources. Some of the more recent ideas I’ve seen shared there have included a Year 9 unit of work on the development of LGBT rights in South America and Year 8 students describing pictures from the trenches as they learned about the First World War in history lessons.

3. Collaboratively embed culture in lessons

Starters and end-of-lesson activities can be an easy place to drop in something of greater cultural value for learning, whether it’s short films, poetry, literary extracts, short stories or songs. The website www.screeninglanguages.org is a rich resource for short films; the ALL literature wiki has plenty of poems, literary texts and accompanying resources. The ALL’s free Barry Jones archive also contains a wealth of useful articles, including suggestions for project ideas for raising cultural awareness.

4. Plan a trip

There is little that can boost motivation, increase linguistic confidence and bring home the relevance of learning a language more than a trip abroad. Getting trips off the ground can be a challenge but it is definitely worth the investment. Moreover, running a trip the second time is always much easier once initial planning is in place. The British Council can offer advice (and funding), and professional networks will gladly share trip itineraries, letter templates and risk assessments that can be adapted to make the task easier.

5. Connect directly with speakers of the language

E-Twinning is a free, advanced digital platform used in 40 European countries to facilitate meaningful remote collaboration. That four in 10 schools have used the platform is a testament to its ease of use and its power as a tool to support learning. Twinning with another school can allow teachers to beam real communication directly into their lessons, pave the way for face-to-face visits and can often result in long-term collaboration and friendships.

Finally, one simple way to increase students’ cultural awareness and interactions with native speakers is to use an often-overlooked resource: language teachers themselves. An assembly or corridor display showing the make-up of the MFL department, how many languages they speak and their own language learning biographies presents students with real-life examples of the usefulness of languages.

We aim to develop inquisitive linguists, so when you are next working on question formation, invite members of the MFL team into your classroom and have students interview them in the target language to find out real information from real speakers of the language.

David Shanks is lead MFL consultant at the Harris Federation of schools

David Shanks

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