As an MFL teacher and head of department, I am naturally interested when something like the following appears. In response, we usually get a flurry of tweets proposing solutions to the problem of declining language take up. I would summarise the solutions as follows
a) We need fairer GCSE grading
b) We need examinations which are better designed
The above are the focus of the letter to the Guardian by a group of linguists, but then people tweet other solutions, namely:
c) The whole MFL curriculum is too banal and needs revamping
d) We must teach languages more at primary, the earlier the better
e) We need to teach subjects in other languages (CLIL)
f) UK language teaching methodology is wrong
g) The subject needs to promote itself more
h) MFL needs far more curriculum time
I think the issue is that perhaps all of us who believe in the importance of MFL tend to focus on just one of these solutions, as the one and only thing that will save the subject. In the past I have been as guilty of this as anyone(point h is my thing). I would like to take each of the above points in turn and explain why I have come to the view that focussing on just one of these, to the detriment of others, is not going to work and why I now, after 30 years of teaching, believe that it is a matter of taking all of the above into account.
Points a and b
At the grammar school I attended in the 1970s, it was accepted that languages were hard. We were a grammar school and did French, German and Latin, whereas the secondary modern down the road barely dabbled in French. Languages had “snob” value. We have quite rightly moved away from a situation where it is “I am intelligent because I study X and you are thick because you study Y. “But in truth, do all subjects present the same level of cognitive challenge? Is there any research on this? And if not, can this be compensated for in the format of examinations and the grading? I have often heard people say that any difference in cognitive demands between the subjects can be accounted for in the examination. But is that really the case? Is MFL more difficult than others? And are some languages more difficult than others? A French colleague once told me that in France it was accepted, for example, that German was more difficult than Spanish. I have no idea whether that is in fact the case, both in terms of whether this is the general view among French academia ,or whether German is more difficult. From my own experience teaching relatively able pupils in recent years, I find they can often understand quite complex grammar when it is presented to them, but they tell me the thing about MFL is how much they have to REMEMBER AND RETAIN, compared to other subjects.
This is certainly the view of a fellow linguist @MFLTransform and he/she has a point. The new GCSE is certainly better than the last version, but there is certainly not enough cultural background. And as someone who spent summer holidays playing outside the house, running errands, reading, with only the occasional stay with grandparents or trip to the beach to break up the boredom, I am still concerned that the MFL exam seems to assume that all our pupils have action packed middle class lifestyles. Endless talking about yourself, family, hobbies, where you live etc is very boring. Yet I am old enough to remember that the focus on “self” in language teaching was brought in, because it was felt that the O level was demotivating as a result of too much grammar and translation. I remember the late Ted Wragg (a linguist) enthusing in the TES about how the new GCSE in MFL was far more motivating for children, as children like to talk about themselves. Well yes, up to a point. But for teenagers who are learning about the adult world in all other subjects? Hmm. And that leads us on to the next point..
Point d and e
Other European countries start languages earlier than we do. Young children are more receptive to foreign tongues and less likely to be prejudiced. Moreover, all the topics in GCSE MFL, which are rather banal for teenagers, are not so for younger children, who do, as Ted Wragg said, like talking about themselves. Without the worry of GCSEs, primary schools are often more receptive top the idea of teaching other subjects in a foreign language. The CLIL idea (teaching other subjects in a foreign language) helps children see that languages are not something cut off from everything else and the recent SpAG test at least enables pupils to realise that English is not something apart from other languages and totally unrelated to those peculiar foreign tongues. There is a risk of cognitive overload, but some schools both here and abroad are doing CLIL successfully. However, just saying “teach it in primary” as New Labour did back in 2004, is not enough. Half an hour a week with a non specialist and they won’t get much beyond names, ages, colours, animals, counting to 10 and singing a few songs. Also, should there be uniformity about which language is taught? And if not, will it really help secondary schools, who already find that they have to teach from scratch anyway, as the feeder primaries have all done different languages and are at different stages? At which point someone usually talks about coordination between primary and secondary. This may work in small towns and rural areas, but not in large urban areas where schools have a range of feeder primaries.
Back in the 1980s, on my PGCE course we were all trained that explicit teaching of grammar was wrong and that all lessons should be taught entirely in the foreign language. @brianlightman mentions the same thing happening to him on his PGCE. Phonics and pronunciation practice were a big no-no.The Bauckham review into MFL teaching highlighted some of the issues which have arisen from misguided pedagogy. @JohnBaldLangLit has particularly strong views on the shortcomings of CILT, the now abolished national centre for promoting languages, when it came to pedagogy. My own view as a practising teacher in the field was that I found CILT useful for resources and the people there were all committed linguists. However, when monitoring a CILT trainee, it did seem to me they got far too hung up on motivation and teachers issuing rewards for children for asking to remove their jacket in the target language. This leads me on to the next point.
Many feel that the main issue in MFL is that pupils are not enthused enough. So over the years many school language departments have latched on to all kinds of ideas. Huge displays, language themed events, trips, exchanges, assemblies, outside speakers, cross curricular projects etc. Is there a head of MFL anywhere that hasn’t arranged some or all of these? As a German teacher, I am a firm believer in the value of trips, as most have never been to Germany before and are often surprised at how much they like it when they get there. And there is no doubt that a new event can often give an uplift to numbers opting for the subject. However, for the uplift to be sustained, other factors come into play and this is not always appreciated by the “everything is motivation” lobby. MFL has been in decline nationally for years and it is simplistic to say that it is all about pupil motivation and MFL teachers not promoting it enough. It may suit some headteachers to say this, however, as it avoids discussion of the next point.
The lack of curriculum time accorded to the subject is, I would still contend, the main reason why it does poorly relative to other subjects and indeed the performance of students leaning languages in other countries. But I am less dismissive of the other points than I used to be. On its own, sufficient curriculum time is not enough. The English education system is not suited to MFL, in that it gives subjects other than maths and English very little time in the early stages and then bags of it at A level. I would contend that teaching a language on one period a week and teaching another subject such as RE, history, geography on one period a week is not directly comparable, because the memory and retention issues in language learning, which I mentioned earlier, are more acute in languages than in other subjects. So then what happens is that pupils become disaffected and behavioural issues arise. SLT then put it down to incompetent MFL teaching (other subjects on one period a week are not having these problems!) and basically give up on the subject or start advertising for lead practitioners/advanced skills teachers/etc.
However, I now realise that it is also true that just giving MFL more time in its early stages is not the single answer. All of us MFL teachers have to ask ourselves whether, in the past, we have always made effective use of the time we have been given. I certainly like to think I have, but likewise we MFL subject specialists should not discount the views of many headteachers, referred to in the Bauckham review, who would say that they have given time to the subject but results have continued to disappoint.
So although I feel that curriculum time is the main issue, I do now acknowledge that by itself it is not enough. All the points I have mentioned need to be taken together. May be some can think of others. Somehow, we have to persuade the powers that be to take all of the issues together.