Research says that language learning is facing a ‘difficult climate’ in England’s schools. A BBC report says that schools are introducing languages earlier but still students don’t wish to continue their language studies as they get older.
Why is the UK consistently lagging behind in languages? Is it simply that there is an arrogance associated with the dominance of the English language?
5 things I know about language learning
1: Learning needs a purpose
If students believe that English is the dominant language then this will produce a laziness when studying other languages. It will be more difficult to see the reason for study and without a purpose it is far more difficult to motivate oneself into learning. Do parents, schools or society in general encourage students to see the importance of language learning in order to fit into a global economy?
From my own experience I would suggest as well that language learning in some parts of Europe is considered normal and attainable. Living and working in the Valencian community in Spain students are brought up bilingual in Spanish and Valenciano. (Valenciano is a dialect of Catalan.) In our school children then develop that further with English throughout school. In Year 7 they begin to learn French and throughout school have the option to take Italian, German and Chinese as additional languages. Language learning is the norm. Students understand that they will be a part of a global economy and recognise the importance of language fluency if they are to take their place in such an economy.
I remember as a child having to earn French in school. Day trips to France on the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry only served to emphasise the futility of studying French as everybody one met spoke perfect English. It wasn’t until I moved to Spain that I had a genuine reason to learn to speak a foreign language. Students in the UK need to see a purpose to their language learning and that purpose comes from understanding the benefits of fluency in more than one language.
2: Learning needs to be structured and have high expectations
The article linked to above positively reports that many primary schools are starting language learning in Key Stage 1. This is a positive development but we also need to look below the surface and see the presentation and content of those lessons. By the end of Key Stage 1 the majority of our Spanish students will have a fluency in English. In most cases this will be already approaching first language fluency. What expectation is placed on language learning in Key Stage 1 classes in the UK? How can that expectation be raised? If students are learning some basic vocabulary that is a great start but where is the rigour and expectation that seven year olds can be fluently bilingual?
3: Language is easier to learn if you have an academic understanding of your native language
The recent changes to improve the standard of grammatical understanding in the UK is to be welcomed. However, it still stops way short of what is expected in some other educational systems. Spanish students have an extremely high technical knowledge of their own language and consequently are able to apply this to learning other languages. They are able to understand quite high level concepts and rules that govern English because they can relate it to the technical knowledge that they have of their own language. This can’t be taught in any other way than through structured language lessons.
If the UK can start producing schemes of work for English language that focus on understanding grammar terms and rules then the building blocks for developing additional languages will be far more secure.
4: Language learning is most effective when it is delivered by teachers with a native fluency
A huge part of the success we have in teaching English in Spain is that we have the benefit of excellent qualified teachers with English as their home language. This makes teaching and correcting language something that is intuitive. Students consistently receive models of English in interactions throughout the day. As much language learning occurs in correcting students in the corridors and on the playgrounds as happens in class.
This immersion system for language learning is incredibly effective. A couple of years ago a student started Year 5 with no knowledge of English. One might expect starting so late would make things more difficult. By the end of Year 6 that students independently achieved Level 5 in both reading and writing. That success would not be possible without highly trained native English teachers.
Frequently we take in students from other local schools who come with excellent grades in English and a confidence that they will adapt easily due to their prior learning. What we see in every case is students that have been taught by teachers for whom English is a second language and usually these students are starting only slightly above a beginner level in English. Sadly that is the state of language learning for most students in the UK. Attracting quality teachers who have the language being taught as their native language is the key to securing higher levels and higher take up of languages in the UK.
5: Language learning is ongoing
We don’t teach students that they will learn English. We talk about reaching a fluency in English and then, the teaching continues. Language learning doesn’t stop when you achieve a particular level of proficiency but is something that develops throughout life. My own Spanish language level is sufficient to communicate but I am learning on a daily basis.