Multi-lingual approach is key

29th April 2011 at 01:00
Learning modern languages gives young people a solid foundation for literacy

Throughout my career in languages teaching and management, I have often been asked what the problem with languages teaching is and universities have expressed concern at the levels achieved by the end of secondary.

Many headteachers challenge the need to offer a language as a core subject, and there is mixed approval of the requirement to offer one at primary.

Over the years, the teaching methods and the place of languages in the curriculum have changed. More than one generation of language teachers was discouraged from teaching grammar and from even using the terminology. The most effective and inspirational teachers ignored this and gave due weight to the nuts and bolts of what makes words hang together.

Learning a language has a huge influence on confidence and literacy. There is no area of the curriculum better placed to support literacy than modern languages, which teaches how language works and makes the learner more aware of the mechanics and imaginative use of the mother tongue.

No one outside the UK would countenance not having one and mostly two foreign languages as essential components of an effective curriculum from an early age. Yet most local authorities have now lost the support of foreign language assistants who were an invaluable resource for the ongoing learning needed by our teachers to keep their own languages up to date and to be a living example for learners.

So where do we go now? Many more language teachers now teach in an active and contextualised manner, the way they always wanted to. They bring the subject alive with relevant content drawing learners into the norms and cultures of the country whose language they are studying.

Curriculum for Excellence can tackle some of these issues and will, if developed imaginatively and enthusiastically, deliver better teaching and learning in modern foreign languages. My overriding worry is that in an effort to be all things to all men, language teaching becomes a watered- down version of cultural awareness, international education, with interdisciplinary projects being offered for their own sake and not for the enriching opportunities they could provide to offer real progression in language learning and partner subjects.

We must hold on to the requirement enshrined in Building the Curriculum 3, that children have an entitlement to be allowed to reach third level in one or more foreign languages. This will not be achieved by tokenism in curricular delivery either at primary or secondary, but by imaginative, in-depth teaching and learning by well-trained and enthusiastic professionals.

Maureen Gilchrist, Former quality information officer.

Maureen Gilchrist is a retired quality improvement officer from Glasgow City Council.

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