As people prepare to celebrate European Day of Languages (Sep 26), the trend in UK schools is that the number of pupils wanting to study a Modern Foreign Language (MFL) is on the decline. But why?
As teachers, we are brimming with enthusiasm for learning languages, and recognise their value and importance but do your students feel as positive as you do or are they lacking the confidence and drive to continue their language studies?
Communication, culture, connection – language-learning is the key that can unlock the world around us – from intrepid visits to non-English-speaking countries to searching for exciting opportunities in the ever-evolving international jobs market or during interviews in which it’s essential to stand out from the crowd. Perhaps, even, when we find ourselves wanting to transform the way we live our lives altogether.
In fact, language skills are highly coveted by most Britons today. According to recent research by Pearson, three-quarters of people who speak one language wish they could speak another. That same research found that 54% of monolinguists have faced difficulties in life as a result of not being able to speak another language, while one in six feel that it has limited their confidence to travel abroad.
On the other side of the divide, nearly nine in ten UK adults who speak another language say this has supported them in myriad ways, including understanding other cultures better, increasing self-confidence, and living overseas. As many as 13% even attribute meeting their partner to having knowledge of an additional language!
If you know – or are – someone who speaks more than one language, you may be able to attest to these many benefits yourself. If not, role models could be what your school needs to demonstrate to students, and school staff, what language truly offers.
“Languages have been an integral part of shaping the person I am today… I enjoy the process of learning them and the world of possibilities it opens up.”
This quote comes not from a French teacher or language-focused degree student; instead it’s straight out of the mouth of Tottenham Hotspur and England footballer Eric Dier. In 2023, this talented multi-linguist became a key spokesperson for Pearson’s More Than Words campaign, as he aimed to spread his passion for languages to today’s learners.
Speaking at an event at Regent High School, London, Eric shared his experiences. That he was shy when he started learning languages; that he could never have predicted where language learning might lead him; that the skill helps him both professionally and personally, and that he has experienced only positives as a result. He spoke in depth with students, providing real insights they could understand and relate to. The interview and student-led Q&A is available to watch here.
There are many other success stories and resources that can help bring languages to life in your classroom. A wide selection of free, downloadable PDFs are available as part of this Real Life series providing great insight from those with successful international careers, past-students enthused to share their experiences abroad, and even current university students on why they chose to continue language learning and the benefits it brings. You never know what brilliant journey their words may kick-start.
As someone who taught MFL myself for 23 years, I can confidently say that it’s when students (and staff!) make those kinds of personal connections that they are drawn to the subject, and start to thrive. By that I mean not only relating to someone who has learned languages before them, but by teaching them MFL through topics that are relevant to their interests and life goals. My own language learning journey started with my wonderful German teacher, when I was 11, who took me on my first exchange trip abroad. She inspired me to live and work abroad, in several countries, and go on to lead countless trips and visits as a teacher. We still share notes about our love of languages nearly 40 years later!
How often are your students completing language projects that relate to their favourite hobbies, sports, people and shows? How clearly can they see themselves needing to use language in the future? How are they practising their skills outside of textbooks and test papers?
For many students, it will be a holiday with their family – or perhaps on a school exchange – that makes language learning feel immediate and immersive. As wonderful as these experiences are, it’s also important for schools to think about learners who don’t have the same level of opportunities. How are you bridging the gaps for students who don’t, or can’t, travel abroad?
There are many solutions available to help overcome disadvantages in MFL. How about linking up with a school overseas via video calls, emails and letters? Making friendly exchanges possible through the internet in weekly class-based slots? Encouraging conversations – forging new relationships – can help students build both fluency and confidence. Achieving inclusivity is essential.
As part of this, it helps to create a teaching space in which learners feel safe. They’re sure to make many mistakes as they go along but errors are an important part of the process of language-learning; as Eric Dier quite rightly said: “I think it’s normal in class to be nervous to put your hand up… but I think it’s really important to be brave and try… With making mistakes, you’ll continue to get better at the language.”
As our world develops in rich and diverse ways, MFL can be a gift that helps learners develop personally too. Meanwhile, the way we speak about languages – the conversations we use to engage our students now and for the long-term – is an important part of our interconnected future.
Let’s get students excited about language learning. Let’s shout about the benefits far and wide, not only in opening doors to future careers and opportunities but the ability to make new friendships and better understand the world we live in. Whatever their native language, encouraging our students to learn a second or even third language will allow them to build their own unique connections and knowledge, allowing new opportunities to ignite beyond the school gates.
Fiona Pryce is MFL Product Manager at Pearson, previously a MFL teacher, specialising in Spanish, German and French.
For a free, downloadable European Day of Languages resource pack and Powerpoint presentation, full of classroom activities, click here.
For more information about Pearson’s nationwide More than words campaign, click here.