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How linguists get ahead in life

Sarah Davies describes how, with the help of pupils, her department held an afternoon to boost GCSE languages take-up - and increased it three-fold

With the number of GCSE language pupils decreasing each year and a show of hands earlier on in the school year indicating that Year 9 pupils were again about to desert us in favour of "more interesting" and "easier" subjects (their own words), the languages department at St Mary's had to do something to bring up the numbers.

It started in September with a new textbook course, a new interactive whiteboard and a departmental push on how to improve teaching and learning.

But we needed something around option time to really hammer the message home. Cash incentives and celebrity appearances were not a realistic option given the state of the departmental budget, so we decided to organise an afternoon aimed at answering the question most commonly asked by Year 9 pupils: "Why learn a language?"

The event began with an introduction by MFL staff, which we kept short, conscious that it wouldn't be our voices that convinced them doing languages was a good idea. We then invited questions (chocolate bribes ensured some Year 9s piped up with the questions we wanted to address):

"Why bother when everyone speaks English?"; "Languages are harder than other GCSEs so what's the point?"; I don't want to work abroad"; " I won't use languages in my job so why do a GCSE?" These were expertly and spontaneously (almost) answered by staff.

Our current GCSE students then did us proud with their own witty and convincing responses. They talked about their courses, the teaching styles and most importantly how much they enjoyed learning languages - teachers were surprised by their enthusiasm. This was followed with a sketch by Year 8 and Year 11 pupils showing the benefits in everyday situations of linguistic knowledge.

We then moved on to languages in the workplace, showing extracts from a BBC video "Talk the Talk", which includes Gary Lineker enthusing about the values of language learning (so what if we won over the odd football-mad Year 9 with promises of vast salaries abroad?). Gary's quote: "Modern languages prepare you for modern life" seemed to strike more of a chord than months of our nagging. The video also featured a website designer, car mechanics, an actress and journalists.

Our two guest speakers then took the floor: Rachel Lister, who works for a school travel company, described her daily use of languages in the world of travel and tourism. She enthused about her day-to-day transactions in French and German to book travel and accommodation and then went on to talk about occasions when she had accompanied school parties abroad and her languages had been invaluable in an entertaining variety of tricky situations.

Mike Crompton from Manchester Metropolitan University gave a witty and fact-filled talk, in which he described the value of languages in the current political climate. Linguistic knowledge puts you one step ahead of the rest: "Two boys on a hike are chased by a bear and clamber up a tree, with the bear in hot pursuit. One boy rummages in his rucksack and starts changing into his trainers. 'Why bother?' asks his friend. 'You'll never run faster than the bear.' 'I don't need to,' replies the other. 'I only need to run faster than you'."

At the end of the afternoon, pupils had their own answers as to the benefits of learning languages, and the recent options process has shown a three-fold increase in the numbers who have chosen to take a language at GCSE. Whether it was the thought of future success in the job market, the draw of Europe, the fact that their reservations had been dispelled, the lure of Gary Lineker or the wonderful teaching on offer, St Mary's teachers are thrilled.

Sarah Davies is head of languages at St Mary's High School, Blackpool

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