Guest Post: It's language, Jim, but not as we know it

Welcome to a particularly exciting week for millions of young people here in the UK. It's A-Level results week! The rush for university places UCAS Clearing season is on and everyone's focusing on exams. In this week, we'll have a couple of guest posts from experts, starting with tutor Sally Holmwood. In this article, she revisits what it is that we are learning for: exams or life?

International Readers: A-Levels are the UK's school leaving exams at 18, and GCSE are the ones at about 16. They love exams in this country.

It’s Language, Jim, But Not As We Know It!

The things you leave school knowing – some dates and long division – so much of it has been of no use to me. Schools should teach the basics of cookery, first aid, how to look after your money and how to speak foreign languages – useful things.
— Jane Asher, actress

Jane Asher is right – languages are useful. Yet, as one BBC article illustrates, for some time there was a worrying decline in their take-up amongst pupils at GCSE. Another article written since then reports a change for the better. But the question remains: What could be dampening young people’s enthusiasm for learning languages? 

Lingo show picture ©bbc, exam pic ©albertogp123 on Flickr

Lingo show picture ©bbc, exam pic ©albertogp123 on Flickr

Live, Love, Learn…

I think back fondly to my experience of learning languages at school as a time of great discovery. I went on excursions to Dieppe and the Moselle Valley (editor's note: hey look that's where I am from!) and took part in exchanges (like those you read about in my previous guest post). I was actively encouraged to venture beyond the confines of the language syllabus and spent time reading books and magazines and listening to German radio stations at home. The more opportunities I had to explore and to take control of my own learning, the more enthusiastic I became about languages.

Once a week, we had a conversation class with a native speaker.  There was an obligation to practise certain things in those lessons but spontaneity/fluidity of general conversation was important too. 

Conversation Killer?

Remembering those classes, when I began work as a private tutor myself, I did not hesitate to lead into lessons with a few minutes’ general conversation in the target language. The first lesson after a school holiday was the perfect opportunity to practise a variety of tenses and grammatical constructions with questions to engage my pupils. Following one half-term holiday, I began a general conversation with one of my pupils. “Was hast du letzte Woche gemacht? Wie war das Wetter? Was hast du am Liebsten gemacht? Was willst du während den nächsten Schulferien gern machen?”  

At first they looked confused. Then they thrust a piece of paper towards me in indignation: “I have not learnt those questions – I have learned these questions.” Once upon a time, even pupils who were less confident might have bravely attempted to answer such spontaneous questions. These days, however, the approach to modern language learning seems far more (painfully) formulaic.

Testing Times!

Many of my younger friends sat their GCSEs last year, studying hard until the bitter end and earning grades to be proud of! Yet some say that, even after years of learning a language, they still feel barely able to string sentences together in spontaneous foreign conversation! However, the paragraphs they had memorised in response to the set oral questions remain etched on their brains…

I do love the way that children’s television is embracing foreign languages with shows like the carefully researched “The Lingo Show” for its younger viewers. It is a great way to inspire young children to learn. As those youngsters move up through the education system, the pressure will be on their teachers not just to hit targets and climb league tables but to keep pupils’ interest in learning foreign languages alive! 

Less isn’t always more

If given more opportunities to engage in general conversation and to respond to general questions, rather than listening out for rote clues to rote answers, pupils will start to feel happier and more confident to use the languages that they are learning. They will get more enjoyment out of using those languages and feel inspired and motivated to continue learning them. 

Next time you come to practise your language skills, consider your reasons for learning the language. Are you listening out for specific phrases so that you can give the one reply that you've learned for them? Or do you hope to take the language you have learned and be able to adapt it for use in real-life situations? For if you do, then perhaps it’s time to look for a more flexible approach to your language-learning..

About Sally Holmwood

Sally lives and works in West Sussex, England. She splits her working week between individuals of all ages with special needs, and languages (specifically German and French). Sally loves to make time to travel the world when she's not working - sometimes Europe, sometimes even further afield! Furthermore, she is a big fan of great television: SherlockBonesThe Big Bang Theory and Doctor Who.

You have GOT to follow Sally on Twitter or Facebook, she is fab! And don't forget to check out her tutoring services at Indigo Languages.