The benefits of learning a language at school are vast.
Of 2,000 UK adults surveyed for a study commissioned by the British Council in November 2020, 73 per cent cited how much easier it made international travel, 70 per cent said it boosted the ability to appreciate and understand different cultures, and 72 per cent said it could broaden career opportunities, too. In fact, people with a second language have a salary up to 7 per cent higher than their colleagues that don’t.
And the benefits of learning a language go beyond the practical. Research also shows that learning a language can improve concentration and alertness, it can make us more empathetic, and far more creative and eloquent in our native tongue.
All of which is perhaps why nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of those adults surveyed by YouGov wished they had continued with the foreign language skills they first developed in school.
Modern languages: How to inspire a love of language learning
For teachers, though, the reality is that trying to inspire and motivate students to study modern languages in the classroom can sometimes feel like an uphill battle.
Ever tougher exams, plus the potential impact of Brexit on the ability of students to travel freely within Europe, have led to a worrying decline in motivation and interest among some students, particularly in deciding whether or not to study language up to GCSE level or beyond.
The power of language assistants in MFL classrooms
But there is a fantastic array of resources out there that teachers can access to revitalise lessons; everything from games to interactive activities to perfecting the perfect tense using pop music.
However, for Curon Evans, a French and German teacher at Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Glantaf in Cardiff, one of the best ways to get students excited about all the benefits that language learning brings is by using language assistants.
“They provide authenticity, linguistic support for pupils and teachers, motivation and up-to-date cultural context,” he explains. “They can also be a vital source of information on linguistic and cultural trends, and provide insights into their countries’ current affairs. They can be an interlocutor that the pupils can relate to more easily, being far closer to their own age, who have recently gone through the same type of language exams.”
This can make a huge difference when it comes to getting students passionate about the subject again.
For French language assistant Catrin Morgan, who works alongside Evans, her presence in the classroom makes a noticeable difference. “A language assistant is so important in making the whole experience of language learning real,” she says. “The way they talk, act and interact is so different to a non-native speaker. They can bring the country to them.
“So many learners don't get to visit or experience the country [where the language is spoken], so it is a vital link.”
It also means that students are exposed to colloquialisms, everyday term, or common metaphors – the intricacies of language that may not be tested in the curriculum but which allow students to converse in the language outside of the classroom, and enjoy all the benefits of doing do.
That language assistants are often similar in age and also themselves struggling with – and benefiting from – the study of a new language, really encourages responsiveness from students, too, adds German language assistant Colin Weiss. “We get to show them that making mistakes is normal, and that we, as assistants, are in the same situation. We can also provide them with examples of how they can use languages – in my case, six months of travelling around Asia.”
For teachers, language assistants can be a fantastic source of support in the classroom. Evans says they both interact with students in a whole-class setting, while also taking out small groups, either those that are especially gifted language learners or those that might need additional support.
“In small groups, the pupils feel more at ease about expressing themselves, having a go and generally being more adventurous in the foreign language,” he explains.
Without language assistants, this work in informal smaller groups simply wouldn’t be possible in many cases, points out Emily Daly, international school linking officer at City of Cardiff Council. “The problem with being a language teacher is you teach the basics to a whole class, but you rarely get the opportunity to sit in a small group and engage in a conversation,” she says.
“The advantage of language learning is being able to use the language, and use it in a spontaneous fashion, and you only get that in conversation. In that way, it’s an essential tool that teachers simply do not have the time or resources to give young people.”
Even with remote learning in place up until recently, Morgan says they’ve continued organising individual or small group chats, arranging 30 to 40-minute one-on-one sessions with students, at either key stage 4 or A level. “It’s an invaluable way of students developing their speaking and listening skills,” she agrees.
Language assistants are also a vital part of exam prep, adds Evans, helping students to build confidence by working through past papers, and practising their spoken skills ahead of what can be the rather “terrifying prospect” of the oral exam at GSCE and A level.
In all these ways, language assistants can help teachers to unlock the many, many benefits of learning a language for students. “They are an all-round welcome injection of enthusiasm and authenticity and are key members of the department,” sums up Evans. In fact, “they often have rock star status in the department.” It’s easy to see why.