Now to break the language barriers

12th January 2001 at 00:00
Last month a ministerial action group published its report on teaching modern languages in Scotland. Revised guidelines for the 5-14 curriculum will be issued to schools later this year. Eleanor Caldwell asked people at the chalkface what they think of the long-awaited recommendations from the inquiry

The recently published report of the ministerial action group on modern languages after a two-year inquiry has finally landed on the desks of teachers, who will not welcome its allusions to students who leave school "in a state of entrenched monolingualism or faltering and apologetic bilingualism".

Through paired speaking, group work, project work, audio and video recordings, language teachers have laboured to develop confidence and a lack of inhibition in pupils to communicate in another language. However, as the report underlines, it is time for a new look at what pupils need from language learning.

The down-to-earth approach of the report, which suggests that students "need not aspire to reach the inaccessible pinnacle of the native speaker", simply endorses the realistic aspirations of most teachers. Encouraging targets such as competence in "mixed mode" (a combination of English and another language) and "passive bilingualism", it focuses on the need to teach languages for active everyday use in future employment.

By and large, reactions to the report from teachers have been positive. They are relieved that there are now plans to resurrect languages from their place near the foot of the popularity league. The proposal for a pound;10 million Languages Innovation and Training Fund (LITF) in particular pleases those who recognise the need for new strategies in classroom resourcing.

The headteacher of Ladeside Primary in Larbert, Kath Hamill, who was trained as a languages teacher through the Modern Languages in Primary Schools (MLPS) scheme, says she would "really like to acknowledge the work of the action group and their commitment to the task". She welcomes plans to incorporate information and communications technology into classroom work but expresses concern about the processes for local authorities to bid for money from the LITF.

This concern is reflected by other teachers and advisers, who welcome the prospect of local authorities having "ownership" of language teaching strategies but are worried about how a national provision with parity across the country will be established.

Mary Larkin, Inverclyde Council's development officer, describes the fund as "vital" to the development of initiatives already established in her area, where they teach languages from nursery through to post-Higher work-related courses.

The strong emphasis on virtual language teaching and learning through modern technology is recognised by most teachers as a key element for the motivation of less enthusiastic language students. However, all emphasis the need for appropriate teacher training.

The report suggests provision of a computer in all language classrooms and departmental bases in the course of this school session. Teachers are surprised and delighted by this, but some remain sceptical of the reactions of colleagues who are neither computer literate nor totally convinced of the effectiveness of ICT-enhanced learning.

Interestingly, it was pointed out that the education system in France is not yet up to British levels of ICT use. In the short term, this could slow down the proposed development of e-mail and video conferencing links.

Teachers agree on proposals for the incorporation of languages in initial teacher education courses and for MLPS training for primary teachers to be regularly updated.

In terms of secondary taining, teachers welcome the report's recommendation to promote diversification but point out that only renewed student enthusiasm and uptake of places on training courses will provide sufficient teachers in second languages such as Spanish and Italian.

Incorporating languages into primary BEd courses will be difficult, given how packed their curriculum is already, but Dan Tierney, an MLPS trainer and tutor at Strathclyde University, emphasises: "It is important that we get all student teachers at least to the linguistic level of MLPS training." However, it is thought that potential students might be discouraged if they require a Credit pass in a language at Standard grade for entry to the course.

Richard Easton, a teacher trainer at Moray House, points out that a mutually supportive system of joint classes of BEd and PGCE students, while logistically difficult, would offer an excellent means of transferring linguistic and pedagogical skills between the two sectors.

One of the report's main proposals is an entitlement to language lessons for all pupils aged 5-16, with a stipulation that "experience" of learning a modern language should begin no later than P6, though the action group recommends the removal of compulsory languages up to S4. Among teachers, the term "entitlement" has different interpretations. Supporters of languages for all are keen to defend their work over recent years and are concerned that the compulsory element might be lost. Others recognise the potential for flexibility of the proposed 500 hours of study between P6 and S4.

Current initiatives across the country range from partial immersion learning for infants to virtual schools for S5 and S6. These pose daunting challenges for local authorities to adopt their own tactics to renew motivation in pupils, particularly after S2. The four-year Languages Innovation and Training Fund would support these and, it is hoped, engender innovative moves throughout Scotland.

Since the release of the report language teachers have been in an upbeat mood and are looking forward to developing a more positive image for languages. After all, they have, for many years, been working hard on "developing sufficient confidence and competence (in their pupils) to be able to use their languages, however modestly, in interactions with other citizens".

John Mulgrew, chairman of the action group and East Ayrshire's director of education, says there is no expectation of a quick fix. "It's a long-term project," he said. But it does look as though the adherence to monolingual education will change to meet the demands of a virtually shrinking world.

Key proposals of the Languages Action Group

* Information on the benefits of languages to be widely available

* Languages entitlement for all pupils aged 5-16

* Local ownership and innovation, supported by pound;10 million fund * A variety of languages to be available, rather than French alone, including Gaelic and Urdu

* Languages to have a more important place in the upper secondary curriculum, perhaps becoming a core skill

* ICT to have a central role in classes from P6 onwards

* Opportunities to use languages with native speakers, including return of foreign language classroom assistants

* Businesses to audit and publicise the country's needs and opportunities relating to languages

* All initial teacher education courses for primary schools should include a core modern language component

* All intending secondary school language teachers to have experience in primaries

* More continuing professional development for primary and secondary teachers

* Promotion of lifelong learning

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