Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Realising the Strategic Importance of Languages

11.1.11.  Baroness Coussins Day.  The day of "Realising the Strategic Importance of Languages", the event organised by Links into Languages NE for language teachers and their senior leadership teams.

Interestingly, the verb "realise" has two meanings - "to grasp or understand clearly" and "to make real; give reality to".  All MFL teachers can do the first one and would like to do the second one.  Members of SLT may not know the first one, and until they can do the first one the second one is unlikely to happen. 

The event started with keynote addresses from Baroness Jean Coussins and Richard Hardie, Chair of UBS Limited, giving us plenty of information to help us to grasp and understand clearly the current languages landscape in this country.  Here are some soundbites:

Baroness Coussins

Baroness Coussins is a cross-bench Peer.  She said that cross-bench Peers are "troublemakers about the causes that we really care about", and hers is of course languages.  This endeared her to the MFL Twitterati straightaway, as we consider ourselves to be troublemakers too, if troublemakers think outside the box, question the status quo and work to effect change. 

"The prevelance of English should not be overestimated".

We live in a country of "complacent monoglot Brits".

Over a third of UK businesses need language skills.  They mostly need French and German, but more Mandarin and Spanish is required now.

Language learning "opens doors to understanding peoples' cultures".

Meetings in Brussels are being cancelled on a daily basis because of a lack of English-native-speaker interpreters.

"The timing is right for a national languages recovery programme", especially with the Curriculum Review imminent.

At the moment we have "curriculum by league table".

We need to aim for language learning to be the cultural norm like it is in Belgium or the Netherlands.

"I do believe very strongly that it should be compulsory for every child to study a language until the age of 16."  (Though not necessarily studying for a GCSE).

This is Baroness Coussins's wishlist for languages:
  1. Make sure that school policy includes something prominent about preparing children to be global citizens.
  2. Introduce a compulsion in KS4, whether they study GCSE or not.
  3. Make a qualification in a language necessary for access to the 6th form.
  4. Make a qualification in a language necessary for University entrance.
  5. Make sure that timetabling doesn't make the study of two languages impossible.
  6. Give parents information about languages and their usefulness.
  7. Promote exchanges and visits to the target language countries.
  8. Foster links with universities and other institutions in the community, including businesses.
  9. Investigate and try CLIL.
"If you really want to get under the skin of another culture, you need language skills and not just a louder voice."

Richard Hardie

Richard Hardie's company, UBS Limited, is particularly keen to hear from graduates with language skills; that's to say with strong oral and written skills in another language AND English.  Their client base is increasingly globalised and multicultural.

Language skills "build trust and deepen relationships with clients"

The "English" spoken in some countries is not always intelligible to an English person!

Languages "prove you've done something difficult".

Denying students the opportunity to learn another language is denying them access to many avenues of employment in this country and overseas.

UBS Limited estimate that by 2030 the main business languages will be English, Spanish and Mandarin.

After the keynote addresses we moved into our groups, where delegates worked through a series of activities to explore feelings about languages at the moment and what can be done to resolve the situation.  With Chris Harte's guidance we had put together a plan structured by DeBono's Thinking Hats.  Some White Hat facts were already in delegates' packs, so when they entered the room we moved straight to the Red, emotion, hat.  Delegates were asked to plot on a feel-o-meter their feelings about the state of languages at the moment.  This is the feel-o-meter from my group, and as you can see, feelings were quite mixed.
Then, using yellow post-its for the Yellow positive hat, and pink Post-its for the Black negative hat, individuals wrote down positives and negatives of the current languages landscape.  Then they discussed their Post-its with the rest of the their table, to see if there were any common themes.  The discussions arising from this were very interesting, particularly as we had representatives from primary, middle and secondary schools, and we could have spent much more time on them.  The one overwhelming point to have come from my group was how crucial headteacher support is to this.  If successful language learning is not in the headteacher's vision for the school, it will never be completely successful.  The Green opportunities hat was next.  Delegates noted down lots of ideas for things that they could do in their school to raise the profile of languages, improve the teaching and learning, and ultimately make them more successful.  They then ordered these ideas in a diamond ranking, putting those with the highest impact at the top.  We also discussed which were the quickest wins.  Finally, individual school groups worked on an action plan, for the Blue planning hat, which would be the beginning of a much longer process and dialogue between the MFL departments and teachers and their SLTs.

The final part of the event was questions to the panel.  On the panel were Bernadette Holmes, President Incumbent of ALL, Michael Wardle, a local languages star who is currently DH at a school in Durham, Elizabeth Andersen, Head of the School of Modern Languages at Newcastle University, Richard Hardie and Baroness Coussins.  Here are some closing soundbites:

Target language use: "Taking independent control of the language system to make meaning"  Bernadette Holmes

"Be courageous. Languages matter. Your voice matters." Bernadette Holmes

I hope that in all the schools represented today the dialogue which was started is only the beginning of a longer and fulfilling process of realising the strategic importance of languages.

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