Thursday, 2 September 2010

Is it worthwhile learning another language?

Boy 1:  My dad's car's got 5 gears.
Boy 2:  My dad's car's got 6 gears.
Boy 1:  Well my dad's car's actually got 6 forward gears and 2 reverse gears!

This is a conversation I overheard on a bus in Sunderland in 1995.  It made me chuckle greatly at the time and it still makes me chuckle. Children love to brag and get one up on their mates.  Since I've been teaching in a primary school I have noticed that children love to brag about how much of a foreign language they know as well.  Knowing more Spanish numbers than we have covered in class gives you real status.  Giving an original and complex opinion sentence when your name is called in the register (they have to answer with a word or phrase in Spanish) earns you the respect of your classmates.

That's just one of the reasons I love primary language teaching.  The thirst for knowledge, the delight and pride at being able to communicate, the discovery of new things.  This continues throughout the KS2 years, and, if we manage transition properly and teach them imaginatively, into KS3 as well.  But you approach Y9 and the GCSE years, and the enthusiasm wanes.  The dry, formuleic, unrealistic diet that is served up by the GCSE boards is enough to put off most students, and also demotivates many teachers.

So is it really worth putting yourself through it all, is it worthwhile learning another language?

This is the title of a Radio 4 You and Yours programme that was broadcast on Tuesday August 31st, and which you can still listen to on the iPlayer.  It followed on from and was probably stimulated by the many press articles that appeared after the publication of this year's GCSE results.  The numbers of students taking a language at GCSE continue to fall (no surprise there) and French has fallen out of the Top 10 subjects for the first time ever.

There are many reasons why I think languages are A Good Thing.  When asked by a pupil "What's the point of learning languages?" I have been known to reply "For me, a nice house, 2 cars, a good job with good holidays, holidays abroad, friends all over the world, and the ability to talk about you without you knowing."  Everyone who has pursued language learning has their own reasons for doing so.  My daughter's godmother is French, and her English husband learned French at evening classes so that he would be able to talk to his in-laws and understand his marriage ceremony in France.  You never know who you're going to fall in love with.  If you'd asked me the same question when I was 14 or 15 and heading towards O'level, I probably would have said "I just really enjoy learning it."  I had no career path in mind, but I had the thirst for learning, and still do.  Learning for learning's sake.

Languages are a good academic subject, which extend not only your language skills but your life skills, your interpersonal skills, your understanding of other subjects such as English, History, Geography and RE, your general knowledge.  They make you into a more rounded human being who is more tolerant of and open to other people and other cultures.  A good academic education does not appear to be valued in this country anymore.  People seem to prefer easier, quicker subjects that require little or no effort.

Following the Radio 4 broadcast, where, incidentally, the voice of the teacher was absent, and at the instigation of Joe Dale, a bunch of the MFL Twitterati attended a special MFL Flashmeeting to discuss the programme and the points that it had raised, and to endeavour to reach some conclusions about the state of languages in this country and what could or should be done.  If you would like to watch thereplay of the Flashmeeting, you can do so by following this link

Over the two hours many things were discussed and many issues raised.  I would recommend that you read this blog post by Catriona Oates, who has outlined the main "myths" about languages that need tackling.  Also worth a read are this post by Isabelle Jones and this one by Steve Smith, both responding to the press articles from the last week or so.  José Picardo has written this blog post about the languages class divide. 

I'd like to focus on what learning a language says about you as an individual regardless of whether you end up using them in your future life and work. 

This is from an old TES forum thread that I started and can no longer find. These are just some of the transferable skills that you can gain from learning a language.

  • I am brave (languages are hard and sometimes scary)
  • I have a good memory - I have learned loads of words and how to spell them
  • I can communicate in another language, and therefore must be quite good at communicating in my own
  • I am literate.  I can read another language as well as my own.
  • I am open-minded
  • I perform well under pressure
  • I am culturally aware
  • I am creative
  • I am open to new experiences and cultures
  • I am confident - I don't worry if I make mistakes, as long as I get the message across
  • I can multi-task - I often have to think of several things at the same time
  • I have well-developed listening skills
  • I persevere
  • I can think logically
  • I can see and apply patterns
  • I can think on my feet and express myself verbally
  • I can solve problems and think outside the box
This is just one point of view, from one person.  There are many reasons why languages are in crisis, and many solutions that need to be found.