The publication of a new Ofsted report into Modern Language teaching in the United Kingdom (titled ‘Modern Languages –Achievement and Challenge 2007-2010’) has revealed that, although “significant efforts” have been made to improve teaching, students are being hindered by teachers’ “unpreparedness” to use languages in class.
The report follows up on Ofsted’s previous 2008 survey and highlights the main weakness in secondary language teaching to be the unwillingness of teachers to provide students with the opportunities to “listen to and communicate in the target language” in class. This might result in teaching that is restricted to textbooks, pre-prepared ‘conversations’ (where a student uses a language to explain their name, location, interests etc. to the teacher) or restricted grammar teaching.
Students are not prepared for the everyday spontaneities and rules of a language, meaning that they could be left unsure of how to participate in conversation with a speaker in their native location, for example on a family holiday or student exchange programme. The report specifically references that students “were not taught how to respond to everyday requests” and that “routine work” and “spontaneous” usage of languages was often limited.
The problem is the attitude taken towards language teaching. It is widely accepted that starting a child early in a linguistic environment significantly improves their chances of acquiring a second language. Bi-lingual children learn to associate objects, places or feelings with specific words in the two or more languages they use in their everyday life. If students are therefore restricted in the ‘normal’ uses of such languages then they could acquire a kind of external knowledge source that seems to have no relationship to their everyday lives.
Is this a problem with the way teachers are trained to teach languages, within the teaching body itself or is down to the curriculum-driven nature of the British education system? The change to non-statutory status in 2004 has certainly resulted in a decline in the student uptake of GCSE Modern Foreign Languages from 61% in 2005 to 44% in 2010. Again, if students feel that a subject has little relevance to their lives or if they haven’t enjoyed learning a language in the past then how can they be expected to spend two years furthering their education within the field.
Ofsted was clear to praise the work done in primary education, with “good progress” being made; this is important in that if students develop a taste for languages early then they might be more inclined to continue learning them throughout their time in secondary education. Yet more needs to be done to make languages seem relevant and important to the fourteen year olds who will be given the choice as to whether to pick a language to study at GCSE level.
In subjects such as Science and English efforts are often made to contextualize the curriculum to everyday scenarios; from the modern-day translations of Shakespearean colloquialisms to the application of scientific theorems onto everyday issues such as physics and driving or biology and plastic surgery. There needs to be a shift within the curriculum of languages to place more importance on the phattic exchanges of the everyday, rather than the usage of rigid question and answer-based oral examinations.
With more and more schools applying for academy status as the result of the Conservative-Liberal coalition, it will be interesting to see whether a broader less-restrictive curriculum in these institutions will have any effect on both the efficiency and uptake of Modern Foreign languages. Then we may be able to see whether it really is the teaching or the curriculum that is to blame for the state of language teaching in Britain.