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The teaching of languages

  • 3 December 2021
  • By John Claughton

‘Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.’

This blog was contributed by John Claughton, Co-Founder of WoLLoW: The World of Languages and Languages of the World and Honorary Research Fellow in Classics Ancient History and Egyptology within the School of Arts Languages and cultures at the University of Manchester.

It’s not telling tales out of school to admit that the teaching of languages is in peril. The annual survey of language teaching by the British Council seems to get darker year by year, expressing concerns about Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3, Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5, and the lack of connection between each of those stages. HEPI’s very own Megan Bowler produced a paper with similarly sorrowful stories.

So, it can hardly be a surprise that universities are short of customers. And yet the strange and wondrous truth is that our schools have never had more linguists and more accomplished linguists than they do today. The only problem is that they are described as EAL, English as an Additional Language, as if this were a deficiency. According to the EAL Academy, the 2021 school census tells us that there are 316 different languages spoken in schools in this country, with Urdu, Polish and Punjabi leading the way. In a city like Birmingham, small primary schools can have 30+ different languages, or be 99 per cent EAL or have 48 new pupils since September – not in September – of whom none speak English. So, there’s no shortage of languages or language teaching going on. The sad part is that the National Curriculum requires all primary children to be taught a language, so that these kids usually end up studying French or Spanish – and then do something similar, or identical, in secondary school.

Let’s imagine that you – or I – have the chance to teach a language lesson to a Year 5 or Year 6 class. One alternative is to teach the boys and girls the days of the week in French, or Spanish, an obvious, simple and, perhaps, not naturally interesting task. Another is to teach them, not the days of the week, but about the days of the week, in English, French or any language you like, or they know. If you were to do the latter, the following questions and answers and ideas and opportunities might emerge:

  1. Who on earth – or in heaven – are Tues-day and Wednes-day and Thurs-day and Fri-day named after?
  2. Who are these guys – and gals
  3. Why in the English days of the week are there four names from the Northmen, two from the pagan world of Sun and Moon and one, lonely Roman god, Saturn?
  4. Why is not even one day of the week which comes from Christianity? After all, it’s been going here for 1.5 millennia.
  5. Why – and how – are French days of the week different, but sometimes similar?
  6. Why are two, Samedi and Lundi, the same as in English?
  7. What does Dimanche mean and what’s it doing on a Sunday?
  8. Is it coincidence that French days and the planets share names?
  9. Is it a coincidence that Thursday (Thor) and Jeudi (Jove) are both thunderbolters?
  10. And what about the German, Donnerstag?
  11. Why are there seven days in a week, after all?
  12. Did the Romans have days of the week? If not, why not?
  13. What about French or Spanish or Italian or German? Are they similar or different from English or each other?

And, at this point, it may just be that a pupil from Russia or the Punjab or Afghanistan volunteers his days of the week, and off we jolly well go into next week.

Such a lesson generates thought and curiosity, encompasses history and geography, empire and religion, and, perhaps best of all, allows the pupils to join in, to use their knowledge, their family and cultural history, to fill the gaps in our ignorance. ‘What larks!’, as someone once said.

And that’s what a ‘WoLLoW’ [World of Languages and Languages of the World], lesson is meant to be like. In recent times, a number of us from Birmingham, Norwich School, Cheadle Hulme School and elsewhere, including the University of Manchester, have been constructing this programme. It is designed to encourage not just learning but understanding and enjoyment of languages for children in primary schools and the early years of secondary school. We think that this is particularly valuable when the pupils in front of us are increasingly bilingual, if not multilingual. We also think it matters that these children are encouraged to be proud of what they already have and to be able to share that with their peers. And then, they might arrive at secondary school with some enthusiasm, even passion, for languages and be readier to learn. And perhaps they might also have the confidence to study their own family languages and not lose them and their links with older generations and their history.

This is a country in which the diversity of our pupils will continue to grow. When I was a boy at school in Birmingham, there were three non-white boys out of 700 and the only non-English speakers were from families which had fled from Central Europe. Now, at that same school, over 50 per cent of the boys speak more than one language at home. If our society is to welcome and understand migrants, to enable them to belong and feel they belong, the teaching of languages is bound to be of central importance. So, perhaps we need to believe that there is an elsewhere, a different way to teach languages to the young so that one day universities will thrive on this wondrously diverse young population.

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  1. Rosie says:

    Useful post. Thanks for sharing this informative post with us.

  2. Laura says:

    As an adult who has started (at least semi-seriously) learning a language since the pandemic, it really makes me reflect how utterly boring my language lessons in school were.

    I’ve been so surprised to find that I in fact, LOVE LEARNING GRAMMAR, which I think we can all agree in school was the part that would make us all groan. I can’t express how exciting it has been, to learn a new small piece of grammar like “I think that….” or “I need ….” and to realise it quite literally unlocks new ways for me to express myself, and to have conversations. It makes me genuinely excited to learn new grammar and vocabulary, and to put it into action, which is an experience I NEVER had in school.

    I think the biggest fundamental game-changer for me is that as an adult, my lessons are largely driven by what I want to learn, and topics that are of interest to me. I have 0 interest in the classic “my house is tall” “I have brown hair”, but I would love nothing more than to tell you about my favourite animals and what I did on the weekend. I am quite literally, engaged in having a conversation, rather than just copying out sentences from a text book which I know I’m never going to use.

    I don’t have high hopes for the system being changed in the UK, but I do think almost any changes would be an improvement on what we have now.

  3. Klaus-Dieter Rossade says:

    Thanks for this piece. Could not agree more: having one or more languages before English is a treasure, not a deficiency.

    Also agree on the focus on learning about meanings and compare them across languages, rather than just learning the words in one language or another.

    Changing the thinking around EAL will take time and may be out of our control. What we teach in our lessons and how we do it isn’t – we can all contribute to richer language learning experiences, wherever we are.

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