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Learning languages in isolation: A hindrance?

  • 12 February 2020
  • By Megan Bowler

This blog was kindly contributed by Megan Bowler, author of HEPI Report 123 ‘A Languages Crisis’. Megan is in her third year at Oriel College, Oxford studying Classics.

John Claughton offers invaluable reflections on languages declines in his recent HEPI blog, drawing on his experience of teaching languages in schools. I was especially interested in his suggestion that teachers should engage pupils with the ‘mechanics’ of languages and ‘how they are alike and different, how nouns and verbs behave and misbehave, etymology and derivations, code-breaking’ as a helpful foundation before Key Stage 3. He concludes that a more joined-up approach, rather than treating languages as entirely separate, would be logical and advantageous for the learner in understanding language as a full picture.

These insights certainly chimed with my findings during research for A Languages Crisis. A collaborative, ‘plurilingual’ approach in schools and higher education, that encourages awareness of multiple languages and the ways they are interconnected, and developing a grounding in grammatical skills and basic linguistics, could be highly effective. Envisaging languages without their wider linguistic context and in isolation from other familiar languages can in fact make learning harder – understanding why as well as how languages behave as they do makes a language’s features clearer and more memorable. Presenting language as not only cultural but also analytical, a kind of mathematical “code breaking”, would also promote the usefulness of Languages alongside other academic fields. Furthermore, challenging traditional divisions between languages – curricular and heritage, ancient and modern, verbal and signed – would surely represent an inclusive approach and capitalise on existing language experiences.

Plurilingualism in Wales

Wales’ new curriculum for introduction in 2022 features a combined Learning Area of ‘Languages, Literacy and Communication’ that could enhance the way languages are taught. It aims to challenge the separation between English, Welsh and foreign languages in the classroom, allowing pupils to transfer knowledge of grammatical structures, word origins and learning methods to different languages in a way that current curriculum divisions can obstruct.

This structure is promising – so long as this Learning Area is sufficiently prioritised in the school timetable, with funding available for training teachers to deliver a high standard of language teaching, it could be a way of curbing current declines in foreign languages participation, which are especially marked in Wales. Particularly in a bilingual nation, this interconnected approach could prevent language learning dividing into three competing subjects and allow pupils to recognise foreign languages as complementary to their other studies.

Linguistics in secondary schools

One way of varying and enriching Languages could be to incorporate linguistics (the study of language and its structure) into teaching methods or as an assessment option. Rather than insisting on different languages as separate subjects (or even discouraging pupils from applying principles from other languages used at home), introductory linguistics could also make future opportunities for learning new languages in higher education less daunting by highlighting existing transferable skills.

A project piloting linguistics for A-Level French, Spanish and German classes co-ordinated by Dr Michelle Sheehan proved very successful. Almost all (92.3 per cent) teachers reported the trial was helpful and pupils agreed it had benefitted their language skills. The project received particularly high praise when run with heritage speakers.

Adding a linguistics component to A-Level Languages, or simply incorporating linguistics more implicitly into teaching, could appeal to STEM-inclined pupils with its emphasis on analysing logical patterns and progressions. The cultural, political and psychological aspects of sociolinguistics could be another engaging area of study. For example, noting differences in idiom between textbook language and modern media, or the variants found by region, age and social class, could counter gaps between school teaching and languages as really used.

Linguistics in higher education:

The separation in higher education between different Languages subjects, and between Languages and Linguistics, is also surprising. While some universities have a merged Languages and Linguistics faculty and / or offer Joint Honours courses, Linguistics in higher education tends to be English-focused. Specialised foreign language linguistics provision for Languages undergraduates tends to depend on the presence of proactive linguists in the faculty.

While most Modern Languages courses include a Linguistics option, and some Classics courses incorporate philology (historical linguistics), it is often restricted to one optional module. Such limited opportunities, because they are unknown territory, are seen as a risk and discourage student uptake. Accordingly, Languages students often graduate with limited experience of how their languages fit in to the wider linguistic picture. One exception is the BA in Modern Languages at Queen Mary, University of London, where Languages courses feature a variety of specialised linguistics module options. Additionally, Modern and Medieval Languages undergraduate courses at the University of Cambridge emphasize interdisciplinarity and include linguistics options from first year onwards; a linguistics project is an option for year abroad research, and fourth years have a variety of comparative language module choices. Similarly, linguistics is one of five constituent elements of the first year of Cambridge’s Classics BA, with more specialised philology and comparative options later on.

A basic introduction to linguistics in higher education Languages could be a simple way of preventing languages being thought of as operating in a vacuum, isolated both from each other and from other academic studies. Giving Languages students a grasp of the International Phonetic Alphabet, a brief insight into sociolinguistics and the way languages change over time, and a new perspective on the inter-relations of language families, would be straightforward to implement and significantly enhance understanding of languages and their applications.

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