The day after the referendum result, language teachers across the country found themselves having to rebuff the idea from some students that this meant there was no longer any need for them to come to language lessons!
The students were, of course, wrong and the recently published British Council’s ‘Languages for the Future’ study usefully identifies that Spanish, French and German remain among the top five languages the UK will need following our exit from the European Union.
The nation’s schools face an ongoing challenge in providing these, due to the predictable and inevitable effect of the ill-advised disapplication of Modern Foreign Languages as a compulsory subject in 2002. This led to fewer and fewer students studying languages at school and then university, and, therefore, a smaller and smaller pool from which to recruit new language teachers. In fact, universities now often struggle to fill places on MFL teacher training courses.
There is no doubt that it is time for MFL to regain its previous status and to be valued in the same way as STEM subjects, as the report suggests.
At Farlington School, in West Sussex, we guide future Year 10 students to a balanced curriculum, which includes at least one modern foreign language, as we regard this as part and parcel of a good, rounded education. Our message is that, yes, languages are not easy to learn for many Britons, but language qualifications are respected by both society and commerce, they can be tremendous fun when taught well, and are an invaluable personal and business skill.
Farlington’s language department has a unique approach to teaching modern languages. Each classroom includes a small stage on which girls enjoy performing the foreign language sketches they create together. Seating is either round-table or theatre-style, allowing girls to interact easily with each other and the software. Active learning engages and challenges children’s thinking, using real-life and imaginary situations.
Prep pupils are taught French from Reception and Spanish from Year 3, with extra-curricular clubs in German and Mandarin. In Years 7 and 8 girls are taught Spanish and French, with German added to the mix in year 9 and Italian in Year 10. Multilingual staff and a flexible timetable ensure that students are able to study their preferred combination of languages, which makes a huge different to their motivation.
We need schools, parents, language organisations and government to work together to address the current language deficit and ensure that our young people are equipped for the international world – Brexit or no Brexit – that they will soon be entering.
David Walker-Smith is a linguist who is Head of Curriculum at Farlington School, an independent girls’ day and boarding school from 3-18 in Horsham, West Sussex.