Following this week’s GCSE results, there has been the usual seep of comments putting a downer on languages in schools. Simon Jenkins’ Guardian article presented a particularly cynical version of this view, which provoked (no doubt as intended) some thorny reaction.
But through the indignation language-lovers feel reading such comments, there are some difficult lessons. The sensation “little point to learning languages” headline is supported by an isolationist British narrative in some of the popular press, and picked up by parents and students alike. “Having a point” is felt subjectively – if the audience decides it doesn’t, then no amount of utility in a subject will matter.
Testing the waters
However, Jenkins enters more interesting waters when it comes to the delivery and testing of languages. His line goes that the establishment wrongly chooses to revere languages, as they are so easy to “test, quantify and regiment” as discreet units. As such, they fit neatly into our our hyper-regulated world of numbers, grades and economic comparisons of worth.
And here is the problem; as living, breathing, real-world systems, languages wither when we isolate them as objects for testing. No wonder that their utility fades away in the transformation to the exam paper. Pupils and parents have keen noses; they can sniff out those “exam only” subjects.
Content and Language Integrated Learning
Increasing the authenticity of learning materials, and in which settings we use them, is key. This is one of the core principles of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), an approach that may just be able to give languages their ‘point’ back. CLIL seeks to extend foreign language teaching beyond the language classroom and into the world in the best possible cross-curricular way. The model is simple: use the foreign language to teach other subjects in school.
International schools have followed a similar approach for decades, teaching through English. And plenty of research such as this study by the University of Gothenburg suggest that the benefits are felt in other languages as well as English. Nonetheless, it has little foothold in schools around the English-speaking world.
Breaking free from GCSE
For now, it seems like an unfeasible, colossal paradigm shift to start using a method like this in British schools. It is incredibly hard to break Modern Foreign Language teaching out of the chains of the exam testing system. The current setup demands hard numbers for comparing, listing, economising. There is little room to manoeuvre in the current climate. But for the survival of the subject, languages must cease to be an isolated, ‘made-for-testing’ discipline.
Nonetheless, there are things we can do to encourage CLIL principles outside the curriculum. Finding personal meaning is a large chunk of realising utility. It’s a strategy that can lead to great success in making listening material suddenly more accessible. Likewise, coaxing students to research their favourite topics via foreign languages may be one route to breaking the subject free.
As common as MOOC
As independent language learners, we can also bring these ideas directly into our own learning. In a world of MOOCs and free online training courses, there is no shortage of cross-curricular material in languages other than English. Khan Academy is available in Spanish, offering courses in Maths, IT and Science. Coursera has a huge catalogue of free online courses across a range of languages. For example, why not try learning some Educational Psychology in Brazilian Portuguese? Or perhaps you fancy learning iOS app development in Spanish at Udemy.
A little commitment is a good first step. Teaching languages? Try to introduce your students to some of these resources. Learning languages yourself? Pick a course in your target language, and start expanding your mind! With some canny thinking, we can free languages from that ‘academic use only’ box.