This year’s GCSE results have provided a glimmer of hope that the long-term decline of students studying languages may be starting to change.
So, how are we going to make language learning more appealing? How are we going to inspire our students to take up languages?
By taking languages out of the classroom, we can make them more real, relevant and fun. At our school, we have run Languages Weeks connected with sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics.
This involves activities such as an Opening Ceremony with flags, anthems and the draw conducted in French. Each class adopts a language of a team competing – anything from Chinese, Portuguese or Russian to Danish or Swedish – and different subjects look at the geography, history, music, food, famous scientists and artists of the countries involved.
Teachers can learn at the same time as their students. Or pupils who speak other languages can act as the teacher to explain the rudiments of their native tongue to their classmates – and their teacher.
The key thing is to give it a whole-school focus and get everyone involved with the idea of learning new languages and understanding different cultures.
Getting creative with language learning
Another fun way to boost language engagement is to take an MFL class into your local area to make a promotional tourist film in French, German or Spanish.
Describing your hometown or region is one of the main GCSE themes, and students usually want to be word-perfect if they are going to film each other, so they take it seriously. It’s also a great way to prepare them for the oral and written exams as they have to develop a script.
Or you could get them to make a promotional film about their school – again, another major theme for their GCSE exam.
It’s important to get students to prepare before going out on location, though, so filming doesn’t take too long. You could take a modern language assistant or teaching assistant along for support and to act as a pronunciation coach.
These films can even be shown to prospective Year 9 students and parents at your options evening. It’s all about demonstrating that languages are not just about reading from a textbook but can be taken into the real world, too, providing fun and memorable experiences.
Nothing can come close to the linguistic and cultural learning that takes place during an exchange. Students often go on to study GCSE, A level and language degrees after unforgettable experiences abroad.
We recently celebrated 45 years of our German exchange with the Brüder Grimm Gesamtschule in the town of Bebra. Over this time, thousands of pupils and families have benefited from the exchange, improving their language skills and cultural awareness, and making lasting friendships.
Indeed, many host families in Knaresborough and Bebra are past participants themselves. A current Year 9 student, whose mother went to Bebra in the 1990s, hosted this April, while a local coach driver and former student who took part in the exchange was delighted to drive the German students around Yorkshire and provide commentary in German.
We also have a French exchange with the Lycée Vincent d’Indy in the town of Privas in the Ardèche and a link with a school in Córdoba, Spain. One of my fondest memories of our trips to France is a student exclaiming in utter disbelief that she had eaten snails, frog’s legs and conkers for her evening meal with her host family.
Despite the huge benefits exchanges can provide, fewer than 30 per cent of secondary schools offer them. However, they aren’t out of reach.
While they do entail plenty of planning, there is help at hand to guide you through organising your first exchange and funding is also available. The UK-German Connection and the British Council, for example, have a wealth of information and advice to make your exchange a success.
And it’s not just Europe where partnerships can take place either. The British Council’s Connecting Classrooms through Global Learning programme encourages teachers to consider links to schools further afield, such as in Africa, South Asia or the Middle East. It may sound daunting but advisers can help throughout this journey to make it more manageable.
Linguistic and cultural insight
Modern language assistants are a wonderful resource. They bring language, culture and energy into the classroom and support the linguistic competence of both students and teachers.
They can also provide a wealth of linguistic and cultural knowledge, from insights into the education setup in their home country, to festivals, daily life, and different local regions.
Budget constraints have led some schools to see these assistants as an unaffordable luxury but by sharing them with other secondary or primary schools you can reduce upfront costs and still benefit from this great resource.
Ultimately, there are plenty of things school can do to promote language learning and enhance global understanding among students – it’s all about being innovative.
We know the myriad benefits of language learning – from improving cognitive function to helping students understand and respect other cultures – so we have to do all we can to foster a love of languages in the children we teach.
Paul Keogh is a Year 7 learning manager at King James’s School in Knaresborough