Lights, camera, languages

27th August 2004 at 01:00
Learning to speak French, German and Spanish is proving to be as easy as PiE for many west of Scotland senior students.

Teenagers often view languages as "rather dusty" but that negative image is being spruced up by the more exciting methods of the Partners in Excellence (PiE) initiative.

Researchers from Stirling University conclude that the innovative scheme for S5 and S6 students in Argyll and Bute, East Ayrshire and North Ayrshire is transforming perceptions of languages, which are now seen as "cool", "real" and "at the cutting edge".

The Scottish Executive-backed project, which began in 2000, links young people with partners in France, Germany and Spain through easy ICT links and immersion visits.

A key motivational aspect comes from residential film-making weekends where students meet others from other schools and use their target language in different contexts. They learn that they are "no worse" than many of their peers, the researchers say.

Before visits abroad, many students said they were nervous about using a foreign language. But most became confident or very confident after being allowed to speak informally and sought out the chance to test their new skills.

Dick Johnstone, of the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research at Stirling University, says that his study, based on the views of students and teachers, affirms the positive attitudes, motivation and aspirations of those involved.

Exam data shows an increase in the popularity of languages over a four-year period. In Argyll and Bute, the percentage of the S5 roll taking languages rose from 9 per cent to 15 per cent and passes were up from 7 per cent to 12 per cent. In East Ayrshire, the corresponding increases were from 8 per cent to 16 per cent and 6 per cent to 14 per cent. In North Ayrshire, the percentage following languages rose from 12 per cent to 17 per cent while passes increased from 9 per cent to 13 per cent.

The researchers believe that improved motivation and extra time for learning from the weekends, visits abroad and ICT use helped to transform the negativity that generally surrounds modern languages in S5 and S6.

Students had the chance "to use the language for real in association with peers and native speakers".

It was also "cool" to use digital video production and online communication to learn outside of school hours. Students grew far more confident by using languages in non-classroom contexts.

One said: "PiE got me to use French outwith the class - it helped me stay with French because at the start of the the year I felt I was drowning, with all the grammar being thrown at you."

Teachers welcomed the project and said that it had "pushed them down the road of ICT". Most saw it as an extra to supplement the work of their department. Anything that increased language uptake and generated enthusiasm won their backing, despite technical problems with the networking.

The researchers pose the question about integrating PiE activity into the mainstream curriculum to reinforce learning outside school and ask how teachers can make best use of the latest technology in exciting ways.

If students only spend 15 minutes a week using ICT for languages, any initiative will fail to build on the learning gains, the researchers say.

Some teachers remained sceptical about increased ICT use. Others were keen to extend the scheme down the age range in secondary to help influence subject choice.

The PiE website can be found at

Partners in Excellence: Evaluation Report. By Dick Johnstone, Hannah Doughty and Irene Malcolm of the Scottish CILT at Stirling University.


Students should be allowed to sit Highers in geography through Spanish, Dick Johnstone advocates.

Other European countries offer secondary subjects through the medium of a foreign language and the Scottish Qualifications Authority should consider further options in the S5-S6 curriculum. It would be a natural extension of the PiE project where students could use new technology to improve their knowledge and skills.

Professor Johnstone says: "A venture of this sort would imply collaboration between language teachers and teachers of the other subject. Ideally, there would be video-conferencing and computing links with partner schools in the other country, so that students (and their teachers) in both countries could engage in joint projects."

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