Young people would be more likely to want to study foreign languages at GCSE if they were encouraged to “reflect on how languages relate to them personally”, research suggests.
A University of Cambridge study indicated that students who learn about the value of languages and how they shape personal identity feel more positively about subjects such as French, German and Spanish.
Researchers conducted a trial with 270 Year 9 students at four English secondary schools in London and the East of England over a full academic year.
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A control group had normal language lessons, while two intervention groups also participated in extra activities to explore the value of multilingualism.
These activities, in the form of six one-hour modules, included one called “Why learn languages?”, different types of language and dialect, and the relationship between language, cultural identity and belonging.
Pupils who were exposed to the extended programme were up to 35 per cent more likely to express positive sentiments about studying languages by the end of the year, according to the research.
Researchers argue that encouraging pupils to form “multilingual identities” could help address the decline in language learning.
According to the British Council’s annual Language Trends survey, an average of 51 per cent of state school pupils opt to study a foreign language to GCSE – far short of the government’s English Baccalaureate (EBacc) target of 75 per cent of pupils by 2022.
The EBacc is a set of subjects at GCSE that “keeps young people’s options open for further study and future careers”.
The combination of subjects is: English language and literature; maths; the sciences; geography or history; and a language.
Karen Forbes, from the faculty of education, University of Cambridge, said: “Young people in England often wonder why they should study languages given that English is used internationally.
“The answer they usually get is that it might be useful in the future, which is a pretty unpersuasive argument when you’re 14.
“We found that if we encourage them to reflect on how languages relate to them personally, they are much more likely to respond positively to language learning.
“This seems crucial if we want to reverse the decline in these subjects.”
Linda Fisher, university reader in languages education at the University of Cambridge, said: “Everyone depends on a repertoire of communication, whether that involves a second language, a particular dialect, non-verbal signs, or something like computer code.
“Helping young people to realise that is key to showing them that they can ‘do’ languages.
“Language education needs to be about more than just vocab and verbs.
“The evidence suggests that we are missing an opportunity to teach children about languages, as well as how to speak and write them.
“Integrating that into the curriculum could potentially lead to very positive transformations in pupils’ attitudes towards language learning.”
The research is published in The Language Learning Journal.