Should we take a more 'German' approach to MFL?

Take-up of languages is dropping in the UK, but in Germany, MFL is alive and well. What can we learn from their approach?

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If you’re a modern foreign languages (MFL) teacher, you’re probably already familiar with the horror stories about your subject: more and more schools are cutting MFL at GCSE and A level, while fewer students are expressing interest in learning them.

Despite plans to increase the teaching of Mandarin in schools, European languages have sustained some heavy losses, German faring the worst with a 38 per cent fall in GCSE student entries since 2010.

Meanwhile, the German school system is efficient at producing confident English speakers, with an EU study claiming that 56 per cent of Germans can speak English "well enough to have a conversation", and it is rare to meet a recent high school graduate from Germany without near-fluent English skills.

So, why the gaping divide?

In the 8 June issue of Tes, Katrin Kohl, professor of German literature at the University of Oxford and principal investigator for the language-learning project Creative Multilingualism gives the case for innovative language learning in schools from a young age, pointing out that the UK is the only country in Europe where monolingualism is culturally “normal”.

Is this cultural difference the main reason why the German school system encourages language learning more than ours does?

'A useful skill'

I spent nine months working as an English language assistant in a German high school. Students' attitudes to learning foreign languages could not have been more different to those I experienced in a UK classroom.

Even in a small, rural school with no particular focus on languages, English lessons were given at least three times a week for all students aged 10-18. In lessons, even less-motivated students could recite Taylor Swift lyrics or lines from American teen TV dramas. But the majority of students were motivated – they understood that speaking English was a necessary and useful skill. They may have complained about the workload but no-one asked: “What’s the point?” We played games and held debates in class, frequently allowing students to lead discussions. The higher level of English meant that the older children were capable of complex analyses of texts and engagement with issues.

In contrast, a few years earlier in a similar classroom in rural Scotland, my high school could only afford for a teacher to teach the Higher course (A level equivalent) once a week. Our small, largely self-taught group barely spoke any German in class and in our brief contact hours we were taught the bare minimum necessary to scrape a pass in the exam. If our teacher had any passion for the language, she kept it well hidden.

'Cultural differences'

The cultural differences are important, here. English is far more widely spoken and accessible to students in Germany than German is for students in the UK.

There is evidence that cultural prejudices are stopping British children from choosing German, despite the fact that German is arguably the most important language in mainland Europe and one of the most popular languages to learn outside the UK. In Britain, we are simply not used to learning languages; in Germany, there is a long history of it, with most adults speaking some Russian, French or English.

However, despite all these cultural barriers, the main reason why so few students take a language to A level has to do with whether the languages are taught at all. Cultural divides and teaching styles do not matter when most primary schools in England don’t offer foreign languages and it is no longer compulsory to take languages at GCSE.

For us to follow the German example and keep languages central to the curriculum, we need to increase budgets and persuade more language teachers to the profession.

Doing this is crucial because having a second language does not only give German students the ability to watch Friends and swear in a new language. It is a vital skill that UK students can’t afford to miss out on, particularly now, as the UK prepares to leave the European Union.

We may be moving away from Europe, but some argue that language skills are going to be ever more relevant in the years to come. Additionally, knowledge of foreign languages has been proven to help brain development in young people.

With budget cuts and curriculum restrictions forcing language departments to close all over the country, we owe it to our students to make sure that they don’t miss out on the advantages that most of our European neighbours enjoy.

Elliot Douglas is a student at the University of St Andrews.

You can read our interview with Katrin Kohl in the 8 June edition of Tes

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