The language I work and live in, day to day, is not my first language. It is a language I learned in school. I first started learning English aged 10 – in the first year attending my local secondary school in rural Germany – and I fell in love with it immediately.
It is therefore no surprise that the learning of modern languages in school – or any foreign language, for that matter – is something close to my heart. Learning English – and later Latin and French – opened up a new world to me and gave me opportunities I never would have had otherwise. It also shaped how I see and engage with the world.
So it was my pleasure to attend and speak at the annual conference of the Scottish Association for Language Teaching (SALT) last weekend in Glasgow, which this year was titled “Still here”. This was highly appropriate. Tes Scotland has repeatedly reported on the struggle languages have faced in terms of uptake. This year, again, the SQA figures on Higher entries showed that the three most popular languages – French, Spanish and German – have decreased since last year.
This is despite the introduction of the 1+2 language strategy a number of years ago – which aims to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn a modern language from P1 onwards and a second modern language from P5 onwards.
However, there are a number of factors contributing to the decline in language uptake at Higher level that appear to still outweigh the 1+2 initiative, SALT delegates told me.
Fitting them into a tight school curriculum is often difficult. Languages are often “squeezed out”, they said. But they also said that, particularly with German, pupils were lacking the “experiences” that would encourage them to study the subject.
There are also wider concerns among teachers of foreign languages around staffing – with one teacher telling me he had started in a department of five a few years ago, which had now shrunk to two, despite steady pupil numbers.
However, there was an enthusiasm in the room I have rarely seen at education conferences. In the breaks, small groups of teachers would find each other, chatting away in the languages they teach in school. In one corner, a staffing situation was discussed in German. In another, it was stressed it was “pas de problème” to skip the queue for cake.
They were also enthused by the taster sessions of languages that were part of the programme, with language experts excited about learning a first few phrases in Polish, Latin or British Sign Language. Their love for what they do was apparent.
For all their enthusiasm, there was also the recognition of another problem looming on the horizon that would have a massive cultural and social impact: Brexit.
Teaching children and young people languages in school has therefore never been more important. And in the absence of more funding or a priority status in the curriculum, passionate, committed teachers are the only thing that can save language provision in schools.
An inspirational teacher is all it takes to light the fire for languages in a young person – I know that from personal experience. We just have to make sure our schools can keep that fire alive.