French by satellite
However carefully you plan a paired speaking activity in any modern language class, the chances are that the animated sound of discussion (in English of course) of last night's television programmes is bound to filter through at some stage.
The need to link this television discussion with the paired speaking activity is obvious. Using broadcasts from French television channels TF1 or Antenne 2 as stimulus material for the dialogue, pupils combine development of the language with their own critique of television, acquiring an exposure to a real representation of French culture.
But a straw poll of modern languages departments in central Scotland reveals that in spite of the promotion of satellite use in the curriculum, where the technology is available it is not always located in the most appropriate places. And that in terms of teaching plans, staff have no specific place for satellite programmes, leaving them with no time to select and preview appropriate material.
With greater commitment to the incorporation of satellite materials into teaching plans, this type of ad hoc arrangement should not be necessary. In Scotland the Satellite Materials Language Education Project provides a range of catalogued satellite broadcasts on video, available on loan from local resource centres. In French, the age ranges from primary to secondary, from cartoons to documentaries, with all manner of advertisements, game shows and soap operas in between.
It's heartening to learn of a school which takes a distinctly up-beat approach towards satellite broadcasting. Lord Grey School in Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, has satellite "plumbed" into all six language classrooms. While adverts featuring Eric Cantona absorb younger pupils, students of Spanish can benefit from a South American perspective with Mexican television, and advanced students of French could follow the French presidential elections. An A-level French class even learned of the Downing Street bombing in 1991 from the French midday news.
It's clear that the phenomenon of cable television is catching up with satellite. In educational terms, this is being assisted by the "Cable in the Classroom" project, which plans to connect all schools which cable passes free of charge, saving an average connection cost of over Pounds 3,000. Approximately 500 schools nationally have benefited from this offer to date.
In Croydon 80 per cent of the local authority's schools are on the cable network. To make the most of the facility, Hedley Shaw of the local TVEI has produced a guide for teachers, giving details of broadcast times, types of programmes, approximate levels of difficulty and ideas for developing particular language skills. The guide includes French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish channels, as well as Eurosport and Euronews with multilingual text services.
A quiet revolution in modern language teaching is happening. Through cable and satellite, pupils finally might learn that the reason for language learning is, quite simply, to impart and receive information. More importantly perhaps, language teachers will have to review their own role in the classroom and welcome this exciting new technology.
Satellite Materials Language Education Project, Glasgow University Language Centre, 14 Bute Gardens, Glasgow G12 8RS