Never before has there been so much potential, and need, for new thinking about teaching and learning languages. Change can sometimes seem threatening, but teachers have an unprecedented opportunity to develop engaging language learning activities with a cultural dimension for pupils from age seven to 16 and beyond.
More than 80 per cent of primary schools are teaching languages now, and connecting learning with other areas of the curriculum, such as music and art.
The new QCA scheme of work for key stage 2 languages suggests ways to do this. There are units that use a song, a painting or a story as their starting point and then weave language learning into related activities. The French unit "Portraits" starts off with a French version of the song "Head, shoulders, knees and toes".
Children then study portraits by French artists and extend their vocabulary to parts of the face.
Combining the nouns with colour adjectives, children move on to create and describe in French their own monster or a portrait. They can do this using ICT. The traditional French song "Savez-vous planter les choux?", sung with actions, then gives more practice in pronouncing the words and helps children to remember them.
Specialist language teachers in secondary schools are also trying out ways to relate the more formal aspects of language learning to contexts that are intrinsically interesting and relate to other subjects. Year 9 pupils at St Marylebone School in London learn about the French Impressionist movement and study Impressionist paintings. They choose an artist and prepare a short presentation in French on this artist, using presentational software or other ICT.
The modern languages department at Cheam High School in Surrey wanted to offer a more challenging learning experience to its Year 9 pupils, so it teamed up with the history department to create a unit based on the film Au Revoir, Les Enfants.
After the pupils had studied the Second World War in history, the French teachers hoped that the story of a group of Jewish children in hiding during the German occupation of France would spark a lively debate about historical issues - in French.
Pupils watched the film in sections, using given sentence starters to comment on what they saw and to predict what would happen next.
At the end of the film they wrote a description of the events and discussed issues raised by the story. Finally the pupils moved on to discuss other films that they had seen and wrote a critique of their favourites. These kinds of approaches provide the possibility of genuinely interesting content and activities for all ages.
Christopher Maynard is a programme adviser in the curriculum division at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.