'My plan for saving languages in our schools'

A linguistics course, pulling in English, MFL and the classics, could fix our tongue-tied curriculum, says John Claughton

John Claughton

One former head puts forward proposals to save languages in our schools

My eldest son started his teaching career this September at King Edward VI Aston School in Birmingham, one of the very, very few inner-city grammar schools that still dwell where they were founded. He is teaching French and, on his first day, he asked his new Year 7 class two questions. The first was "What languages have you studied at your junior school?"

The answers were, somewhat unhelpfully, French, Spanish, German, Mandarin, Italian and Arabic. The second question was "What languages do you speak at home other than English?" The answers were Urdu, Punjabi, Somali, Vietnamese, Bosnian, Tagalog, Bangladeshi, Dutch and Pashto. And, if you didn’t know already, Tagalog is a language of the Philippines, heavily influenced by English and Spanish and to a lesser extent by Chinese and Arabic. This simple way of passing, or surviving, your first ever lesson as a teacher exposes two truths about the current teaching of languages in our schools.

It's all Greek to me

The first is that, although it’s in the rules that languages should be taught in key stage 2, there is no consistency in what is offered. So, whatever boys and girls have learned at junior school, and that might not be very much, every secondary school teacher has to go back to square one or Old Kent Road in Year 7.

The second truth is that, in many of our schools in many of our towns and cities, we have pupils with remarkable linguistic experience and knowledge, thousands upon thousands of boys and girls who are bilingual – or more. And yet, we treat this as a handicap, categorising them as English as an additional language (EAL), and, to make it worse, there is little or no connection between what they study in junior school and this pre-existing knowledge. We tend to ask pupils to leave these multilingual talents at the classroom door, rather than invite them to bring them in.

Sadly, my son didn't follow me into teaching Latin and Greek but, since I gave all that up, I have been talking with a wide variety of schools, independent and state, and other institutions about the teaching of languages, English language, modern languages and, where they still cling on, classical languages. These conversations have identified the two issues raised by my son’s enquiry, but there are plenty more. So, here’s a list:

  • There is a lack of time available for the teaching of languages, classical or modern in Years 7 to 9 in secondary schools – and we all know that language learning needs time and regular activity. It’s not easy to get anywhere on one hour-long lesson a week.
  • This and the demands of other subjects, particularly Stem, mean that there is limited take-up of languages beyond Year 9. This, in turn, leads to small class sizes and a decline in the number of subjects on offer, which, in turn, leads to a shortage of good A-level candidates and candidates for university.
  • This, in turn, means that language departments are under the threat of reduction or even extinction, especially in a world where schools, both state and independent, have financial pressures.
  • The teaching of classical languages, in particular, has been eroded gradually over recent decades so that it has become increasingly the preserve of independent schools or even a declining number of independent schools.
  • Teaching of languages in junior schools is flawed in a variety of ways: there is a shortage of time, willing teachers and commitment when Ofsted’s concentration is on numeracy and literacy. So, the final product can be limited and uninspiring.
  • The teaching of languages has become topsy-turvy. English in key stages 2 and 3 has become heavily, if not unbearably, grammatical – "fronted adverbials in KS2" – even though this is not what English teachers are good at or want to do. On the other hand, the teaching of Latin, through the Cambridge Latin Course, and modern languages has become relatively grammar-lite, aiming at fluency and confidence through immersion rather than through grammatical structured learning. The result of all this is that there is a lack of thinking about the nature, the machinery, the models of language.

This is all something of a shame at a time when the world beyond education is living its global life, stressing the value of communication, problem-solving, critical thinking and global awareness, all of which come from the study of languages. Scientists, engineers, doctors are all emphasising these skills as critical to future success. And the impact beyond school has its scary side, too.

At Oxford and Cambridge, you can now study classics with only GCSE Latin and, whisper it who dares, Oxford is considering offering ab initio ("from the beginning", a neuter noun in the ablative) French to beginners. If that is true of the strongest universities, there must be uncertainty rippling through many university language departments. o tempora, o mores ("oh the times! Oh the customs!") – as we used to say.

Of course, one solution is for every school to offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma so that every student has the chance to study a language for seven years. However, there might be other, less radical solutions and here are two modest proposals.

A coherent languages strategy

The first is structural. In the past, language departments, English and modern languages and classical languages have not often shown signs of amity or collaboration. Too often, it has been the opposite as we have fought for time in the timetable or for students to choose our subject. Surely it must be possible for these three departments to get together to create a coherent languages strategy? After all, the unholy trinity of physics, chemistry and biology have managed, perhaps not always without strife, to present themselves as science. If these three languages departments could talk to each other, they could use awareness of each other’s syllabus and methods to construct schemes of work that build on, rather than ignore, the activities taking place down the corridor.

Here is an example. I know that Latin may be already extinct in too many schools, but it can, and did, perform the function of teaching grammar, singular and plural, active and passive, subject and object, perhaps even gerund and gerundive upon which English teachers could build. And, if this were so, the languages (sic) department could organise a coherent curriculum that gives languages the right amount of time, instead of lamenting the lack of periods and fretting over extinction.

The second proposal is curricular, or even pedagogical. In the junior school years and in the first year of secondary school, it must be possible to construct a languages curriculum that teaches an understanding of and an interest in languages; a linguistics course instead of an imperfect course in one language. Lessons that show how languages work, how the patterns emerge, how the structures and vocabulary are both similar and different from language to language, could really interest and inspire younger pupils: they like puzzles and codes and problem-solving. And this modus operandi – there’s a genitive gerund for you – would enable those bilingual and multilingual boys and girls to introduce and delight in what they know already. It’s not hard to generate such material. And there are two more advantages in this.

Junior school teachers may not be desperately keen to teach a language in which they are not confident, but this kind of exercise requires not knowledge but an interest and enthusiasm and the ability to build on what the pupils know. The second advantage comes from the growing partnerships between state and independent schools. The latter often have the expertise, both in their teachers and their students, which could be of great assistance to help deliver lessons with the former. And then, boys and girls might arrive at secondary school with an excitement about languages, rather than some vague memories of a few phrases and some numbers from before the summer holidays. Secondary schools could then build on that and, perhaps, the little boy who can speak Tagalog could become the star of the show.

John Claughton is former chief master of King Edward’s School in Birmingham

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