Get involved: How to make language lessons great

Remember only a few weeks ago, when we looked at the findings of the British Academy's State of the Nation report? I'm sorry to keep battering you, Great Britain, but the alarm bells really do start ringing when you read articles like this one, in the UK Guardian.

It starts with an image of language learning that certainly would have never given me my passion:

Learning a foreign language is difficult, right? Well, yes it is if you start at 11, only do it for three years, get the bare minimum of curriculum time, have your classes so spaced out that you forget what you learned last Wednesday when it comes to the next lesson on Tuesday, and never get to apply your skills, so it’s all theory and no practice (let alone pleasure).
— Guardian, Languages in UK schools: where we are vs where we need to be

Gosh. Yes. I think I would hate most subjects taught like that.

The article goes on to describe how a lot of the teaching is too driven by exams and motivation and fun come in much lower. Academics and language experts decry the design of the GCSE exams as really narrow - no one would feel challenged or intrigued by their content.

Design a School

 img: morguefile

img: morguefile

Compare the ideas above with the tuition I experienced in Germany. My own curriculum looked a little like this:

  • In Kindergarten and primary school, there were no formal foreign language lesson. We sang "Sur le pont d'Avignon" and "If you're happy and you know it", that's about it.
  • English was introduced at age 10 in my new school. At this stage I was REALLY EXCITED to study 4-5lessons a week. The number of lessons didn't drop until I left school (I chose this after age 16). We were reading plays and books about halfway in. We had school exchanges and the language was relevant to other subjects.
  • At age 12/13, I had to take second foreign language but got a choice of Latin vs French. I went with French "because Latin is dead". Most of the geeky guys in my class went with Latin. This again came in at 4-5 lessons a week for the next 5 years. Again, we did have school exchanges.
  • There was a voluntary option of taking a third foreign language in the afternoons at age 14 (2 hrs a week), and I chose Italian out of Italian vs Spanish vs French for the Latiners.
  • Enter age 15/16 and I had to drop Italian. We continued for a bit as a club rather than a school subject, but things fizzled out. Instead, I got the option of taking up Latin - once again at 5 lessons a week.

Honestly, I couldn't have imagined a much better environment. I would have probably liked to continue with Italian, but I did get to drop it in favour of another language. I wasn't even at a foreign language or Europe-focused school, just seemingly one that offers all it can.

Twinning is winning

I think exchanges and twinning were so much more significant and important than how I imagine having taken a physics lesson in French. We got to hang out with ENGLISH TEENAGERS. I had AN ENGLISH BOYFRIEND (for 2 days). They came to our parties and drank our alcohol. That, ladies and gentlement, is intercultural bonding.

And perhaps controversially, I was also more than happy to start learning languages at the age that I did.

What would your ideal language school look like?

Dream in the comments, please! We can probably all do a job at least as good as Michael Gove.

  1. How many lessons a week do you think children need?
  2. At what age would you start?
  3. Would you incorporate language learning in other subjects (the new FLAME project is keen on that)?
  4. Would you include foreign trips, language exchanges or virtual twinning with other schools?

Sylvia Guinan, experienced Greece-based English online teacher, added that the space in which you are taught can make a huge difference to interest and wellbeing. She found great ideas in this gallery of cool learning spaces, and points out how they also have the best in blended learning options available.

The Extreme Classroom is my favourite - learn a language by going out into the world and using it, reading it and so on. If we can't all go to Germany, is the internet the next best thing?