Anglophones are victims of our own success. English spread around the world on the back of British imperialism and economic clout, becoming the first, second or official language from Auckland to Athabasca and from Kolkata to Cape Town; and the business language from Beijing to Buenos Aires. Admittedly, the global language status of English was secured on the back of US co-ownership.
Brits are notoriously monolingual, but it is neither laziness nor arrogance. There just isn’t an urgent need to learn an additional language; and there are fewer opportunities. In Chomsky’s terms, it amounts to the “poverty of the stimulus”.
Learning environments tend to be monolingual. Pupils learning Spanish have little opportunity for immersion. Lessons take place in timetabled isolation – Iberian atolls in an Anglophone ocean. Spanish young people by contrast immerse themselves in English outside class – on the internet, in magazines and books, on radio and TV, through film.
Learning a second language is a good career move – lots of good jobs require second language competence. Making international contacts is easier if you can speak the language, and also understand the culture.
There is growing evidence that working in two languages literally exercises the brain. Research in Quebec has even shown that it might even fend off Alzheimer’s.
We have to decide whether the fundamental aim of MFL in education is to get a large number of young people to proficiency, or attract a select few to take it up in advanced courses. We need to raise our aspirations. Here's how to do it:
- A starting point for change is to adopt one second language and stick to it. Reject carousel culture. A smattering of languages cuts no ice in careers terms and has little intellectual bite. Splitting between several modern languages also makes it difficult to establish critical mass.
- Second, don’t take the lowest common denominator route by treating Year 7 as Year Zero, starting everything from scratch. Build on the junior phase; work with feeder schools to establish continuity but also progression.
- Third, promote the second language across the school – in plays, debates, presentations and signage. Some schools have sixth-form tutor groups that do all their business in a foreign language.
- Fourth, let the second language bleed across curriculum boundaries – like geography taught in French; or PE in Mandarin. Across Europe, content and language integrated learning (CLIL) is becoming de rigueur. In one project in Spain, pupils studying much of the curriculum in English have entered, and done well in, a raft of IGCSEs at age 16.
The evidence from pioneering UK schools is that CLIL increases language competence without loss of attainment in other subjects. It promotes a balance of fluency and accuracy. It raises take-up of MFL. Pupils seem readier to take risks (learning from "productive failure" in a low-stakes environment), and respond when teachers push their own boundaries. And, most important, it makes language learning authentic, engaging and fun.
So trawl the staffroom for colleagues hiding A-levels or even joint degrees in modern languages – and throw down the gauntlet.
Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust