Who doesn’t love a good conference? I’m fresh from the #mfltwitterati meet-up this weekend, and buzzing with new ideas. Now, for friends in the polyglot community, the acronym MFL might not mean a lot. It stands for Modern Foreign Languages, the standard label for secondary school language teaching departments across the UK, and familiar to the ears of British teachers and students alike.
The aims of the conference were in the best spirit of these get-togethers, being chiefly a forum for educators to come together and learn from each other. Through talks and hands-on product demos, it seemed that everybody came away with something new to try.
But for me, it shone a light on that unique position my colleagues and I occupy; that bridge between the relatively separate worlds of MFL teaching and the polyglot community. And it reminded me of the vast amount each of these communities, united in a love of languages, has to offer the other.
The polyglot winding road
The path to this in-between place was a winding one. An obsession with foreign languages led me naturally to a degree in German and Spanish, and then on to teacher training. Although I left the classroom a long time ago now to develop software for it rather than teach in it, that thread of language love connects the dots through the story to the present.
I now sit between worlds : the polyglot community and MFL provision in schools. By day I make games for language teachers, by night I teach myself. That said, the classroom itself can sometimes seem distant to us content creators. Conferences like #mfltwitterati (and the generosity of hosts, Ashcombe School, in allowing me and my colleagues to observe language classes taking place) give us the chance to reconnect with that world.
Birds of a feather
Perhaps the most striking observation to draw from the counterpoint is just how closely the two spheres have moved towards one another in the last decade. No more chalk ‘n’ talk, dog-eared course books and 101 Things to Do with an Overhead Projector (I completed my teacher training in 2002!). It’s no secret that tech is king, and teachers are as adept as polyglot-savvy learners at using it.
Some language hacks spread like wildfire and cross boundaries. Google tips and tricks were everywhere at MFL Twitterati. You can draw immediate parallels with the kind of Google hacking linguist enthusiasts are using outside schools.
Gamification, too, is flying high in both camps. An interactive demo of the excellent Newby Chinese had me lapping up Hanzi characters, envying the kids that end up playing and learning from it in class. Only a day before, I’d watched students spurred on by the same kind of multiplayer competitiveness on other MFL teaching platforms, too. Competition is a powerful motivator, and it is infectious.
— NewbyChinese (@NewbyChinese) April 27, 2019
Talking of competition, more than one teacher mentioned Duolingo. That ubiquitous platform is perhaps the most widespread of the gamified, leaderboard-driven language learning platforms. It’s no surprise, then, that it has well and truly colonise both sides of the divide.
What is perhaps most interesting is what fails to cross-pollinate between school and hobbyist learning. The traditional course book seems to be the least mobile of media. Schools have dedicated materials like Expo (French) and Logo (German). Individual learners favour programmes like Routledge’s Colloquial series and Teach Yourself.
Conversely, lots of real-world language resources, like Duolingo and Quizlet, permeate down into schools. However, it seems that the reverse is not true. Resource websites aimed at schools, like Vocab Express and Kahoot! don’t enjoy the same kind of popularity outside the classroom. This, of course, is due to their choice to specialise in secondary teaching. But given the runaway success of services like Duolingo, are they missing a trick, perhaps?
Meeting of minds?
Both scenes have their social media / talking stars who churn out ideas. But given the touch points above, we might well wonder what could happen if the likes of Joe Dale teamed up with Alex Rawlings or Benny Lewis. For instance, Benny’s dynamic, fast-results Language Hacking guides could sit nicely alongside more traditional course books for Key Stage 3 and 4.
— Joe Dale (@joedale) April 27, 2019
There is already place for collaborations to begin: Twitter, of course – arguably, the biggest meeting of minds we have. But we come back to the wonderful energy of a friendly conference like #mfltwitterati. If that could be grafted onto the raw enthusiasm of the wonderful Polyglot Conference, the sky’s the limit. Food for thought for us all, whichever side of the linguistic riverbank we call our home.
It’s quite a lucky accident to have ended up with a foot in both camps. I learn so much from seeing both sides of the language learning coin. And as the divide begins to blur, the potential for collaboration on amazing new projects is huge. Let’s enjoy watching that unfold.