Modern Foreign Languages - A tongue-twisting task for teachers

Staff and students challenged to learn 1,000 foreign words

Teachers of other subjects often don't know their Arsch* from their Ellbogen* when it comes to foreign languages, and recruitment of qualified staff can be tricky. But teachers in the UK are to be placed at the forefront of a new project to "challenge the elitism of language learning" by encouraging even the most committed monoglots to learn 1,000 words of a foreign tongue.

School staff - alongside their students - are being urged to become "basic users" of another language, enabling them to do things such as order a pizza in a restaurant, introduce themselves and ask other people about their hobbies. Experts have said that the best way for people to reach their vocabulary goal is to find something that interests them: this may involve learning some swear words, but might equally lead to the acquisition of essential football terminology.

The 1,000 Words campaign, which launches in the UK next week, is setting out to "democratise language learning" and create a workforce where people at all levels have basic competency in another language. It is targeting schools alongside businesses and other organisations.

Project leader Teresa Tinsley, author of the British Academy's State of the Nation report on languages, said that learning 1,000 words would make society "massively different for the better".

"If you start to say you have to be fluent, it's too much. It's more attainable and realistic to say 1,000 words: it is something everybody can realistically expect to achieve," she said.

Schools should also introduce other policies to promote language learning, such as setting the goal that all students leave with a language qualification, Ms Tinsley said. She praised schools that took a cross- curricular approach.

Dr Charmian Kenner, deputy director of the Centre for Language, Culture and Learning at Goldsmiths, University of London, said teachers could learn "a great deal in a short time" as long as they focused on an area in which they were interested.

Children often enjoyed picking up swear words in foreign languages first, she said. "But it wouldn't get you a long way. It's a way of getting into a language, but after that they might need something more meaty."

Nick Mair, chairman of the Independent Schools' Modern Languages Association, said foreign language acquisition was a "complicated cocktail" that depended on the language being learned, innate ability and motivation. "It's true that people do learn quite quickly just before an exam," he said.

The 1,000 Words campaign is being run by languages charity Speak to the Future and will highlight innovative projects in schools. It will launch next Wednesday (25 September).

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which has already signed up to the campaign, said: "Languages are perceived as subjects that are difficult . this shows that it's not just for people who are going through a very academic route."

The launch comes amid much hand-wringing over the state of languages in British schools. A report from the National Foundation for Educational Research in February shows that students in England reach the lowest level of competency in foreign languages out of 14 European countries, alongside the French.

French and German GCSE entries have also fallen dramatically since modern languages were made optional from age 14, although the introduction of the English Baccalaureate performance measure appears to have stalled the decline.

*It's exactly what you think it is. In German.

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