There’s no denying that enthusiasm for learning foreign languagesamongst our schoolchildren is at an all time low. But if things are going to change, teachers and parents need to get smarter.
In 2005 the Guardian’s Polly Curtis described how more children were learning a language to GCSE level than they were 10 years previously.Apparently, pupils were even willing to explore languages like Arabic, Chinese and Spanish as well as more traditional alternatives such as French and German. Just two years later, this number was down dramatically, with fewer than half of all English school pupils taking a modern European language at GCSE level. Pupils were now not only avoiding traditional modern languages such as French and German, but avoiding languages altogether. The finger of blame was pointed at the incumbent Labour government, who in 2004, decided to make foreign languages optional at GCSE level.
Skip to 2012, and the House of Lords is again being forced to call for languages to be made compulsory in schools. Senior figures claim that British kids cannot compete with their continental counterparts, and more worryingly, they warn that Britain risks being cut off from the rest of the world. Compulsory language learning on its own is not the answer, and there seems to be a deeper issue that needs addressing. Making modern languages a central feature of the new English Baccalaureate – an award for pupils securing a C grade or better in English, maths, history or geography, the sciences and a language – should help the figures, but what can teachers and parents do to inspire children and make them want to learn languages again?
Way back in 2000, Ros Taylor wrote for the Guardian about the web’s potential for language learning. At the time, internet users represented less than 6% of the world’s population, and Taylor’s article pioneered the use of online resources as a viable alternative to textbooks for GCSE students. As the internet became more popular, websites have become a pivotal resource for school pupils across all subjects. Earlier this yearFrance launched a national campaign to improve foreign language skills amongst its schoolchildren, centred round a website calledenglishbyyourself.fr which uses self-study materials accessible on mobile and tablets to immerse children in a spoken English environment. While the internet has surpassed Taylor’s expectations and embraced full-scale language courses such as this, there is still one area that remains virtually untouched by teachers – social media.
This is not to say that teachers haven’t yet taken to social media. Some have, the Guardian Teacher Network blogger Matt Britland was an early adopter, quickly recognising the opportunities that social media gives for sharing experiences, tips and resources. But search for terms such as “language learning” or “learn French” on any of the major social networks – Facebook, Twitter and Google+ included – and you will not yet find an abundance secure, interactive language learning environments like France’s englishbyyourself.fr.
We are late to the party. Children now default to social media in nearly every aspect of their life. They use it to communicate with their friends, play games and watch TV. Our failure to provide language learning resources must partly be due to teachers and parents who either don’t appreciate or don’t understand the power of social media. But by ignoring social media we are missing out on a world of opportunities. Schools like to think of themselves as modern, innovative and forward-thinking institutions, and the majority of them are. If you enter a classroom today, you are confronted with computers, PowerPoint, electronic whiteboards and iPads. But by refusing to engage with our children in the digital playground that is social media, we will never truly understand their needs and never fully realise its potential as a language learning tool.
1. Create a Facebook page that your class can ‘like’. Start posting updates to your timeline, but not in English. Ask your pupils to translate the text using Facebook’s in-line Bing translation tool and ask them to gauge its accuracy.
2. Create a Twitter account. Start tweeting in a foreign language, keeping in mind that you have a 140 character limit, and see if your pupils can strike up a conversation with you. Impose a non-English only reply and retweet rule.
3. Create a YouTube account. Ask each of your pupils to record a video blog, or ‘vlog’, of their hobbies, thoughts or opinions on topical news stories, but speaking only in a foreign language. Those who want to have their video uploaded should send it to you first.
4. Create a Pinterest account. Take some pictures of prompt cards, post-it notes or even objects with their description in another language and ‘pin’ them on your boards. You could even look for photos of the country, or infographics about languages in general, to help your pupils understand more about why they should learn it.
5. Create a blog or Tumblr. Dedicate it entirely to publishing content in the language you teach. Show your pupils why you love the language and inspire them to do the same. Ask them to write something, however small, and post it for the whole world to admire.