From education to employment

Why educational reform is essential to changing the dominant British perception of Modern Foreign Languages

Riyan Durrani

It’s no secret that we have become reliant on translation technology to communicate in foreign languages rather than taking the time and effort to learn a new language. According to Palaver’s own findings from a recent YouGov study, twenty percent of respondents in the UK openly state they have no intent on learning a new language because they consider Europeans adequately proficient in English. The trend for eschewing language learning is nothing new and the perception students have of learning them was highlighted in the Department for Education’s annual report, highlighting that students perceived language GCSEs as harder than other GCSE subjects.

With languages presenting numerous benefits, such as heightened cultural appreciation and ability to multitask, what can be done to address the way they are taught in schools? Why is it that MFL (Modern Foreign Languages) are seemingly so unpopular amongst pupils, and what steps can be taken to improve appetite for languages at school level and beyond? 

The times they are a changin’ – or are they?

Insights garnered from Palaver’s survey highlights what may hold Brits back from learning a new language: for 35% of respondents, time was the biggest deterrent, closely followed by difficulty (26%) and bad memories from sub-par school lessons (12%). Languages have not been compulsory in schools beyond the age of 14 since 2004, with Ofsted themselves claiming that entries for MFL have “declined significantly” over the years. Add to this the fact that Ofqual reported that entries for foreign language exams almost halved since 2002, it’s clear there is a dwindling appetite for language learning. 

There are indications that this traditionalist mentality may be shifting amongst a younger, Gen-Z crowd. You only have to look at the spike in popularity certain language subjects, specifically Spanish, have seen this year. According to The Guardian, Spanish grew by 11.5% in popularity, with a total of 103,790 students sitting a Spanish GCSE exam this year. 

Whilst this is an encouraging initial sign, of course MFL is not monolithic – the article goes on to outline that other language subjects (such as German) have seen a sharp fall of more than 10% this year. We must also take into account the extent to which languages are taught across different regions of the UK, as the article posits there may be a burgeoning divide between regions on how certain subjects are taught, ultimately affecting the final pass rate of students in different areas.

Where does our apparent lack of linguistic appetite come from?

Further insights from Palaver’s survey found that almost 8 in 10 (78%) of Brits agreed with the statement that Europeans are much more naturally adept at learning foreign languages. It seems that Brits’ casual “ineptitude” (or defeatist perception of language learning) has become ingrained into our cultural fabric, with many Brits seeing learning a new language as an unnecessary uphill battle and Europeans viewed as infinitely better at learning new languages.

Thirty per cent of Brits would sooner learn to code in a new language rather than learn a foreign spoken one. One interpretation of this statistic is that British people deem languages to be less useful than coding languages, especially as English is the lingua franca within the coding world. The benefits of multilingualism cannot be understated – learning a new language opens up new possibilities and opportunities, allowing an individual to be more culturally curious and sensitive to non-English speakers, as well as equipping them with a heightened ability to multitask and thrive under pressure. 

When travelling abroad, Brits are therefore more likely to rely on instant translation services or phrase books to help them with their communication issues when navigating a non-English conversation or attempting to read signs or maps with image translation technology. 

Educational reform is welcome, but is it enough?

The issue at hand may not only stem from societal perception on language acquisition, but the way MFL lessons are taught. The Department for Education recently stated that MFL subjects are set to have their programmes reworked to attract more students to learning a new language, with the ultimate aim of having 90% of Year 10 pupils studying a humanities subject. However, the Department of Education does not have concrete statistics in terms of how many students it would like to see studying MFL, and they would do well to include these statistics to give schools across the country a common goal which would help to avoid issues like regional educational disparity in the languages field. 

They do, however, outline what the newly reformed language programme would look like. Students will be examined on word “families” (words that are similar to one another – “manage”, “managed”, “manages”) instead of learning from verb conjugation tables. While this is a good move to shift the paradigm away from monotonous hours spent simply memorising word tables, the Department for Education would do well to recognise the importance that this has in our overall understanding of languages. From verbs come conjugations, from conjugations come sentences and from sentences comes speech. A dynamic approach, mixing word families and verb conjugations, would mean that students gain a more holistic understanding of words in another language. 

Whilst this reform is a welcome step to opening up the conversation around how languages are taught, the government need to introduce this to younger ages – for example, incorporating the idea of “word families” into the primary school MFL syllabus, thus facilitating the transition between Years 6 and 7 and ensuring that students don’t feel too lost when they begin their formal language learning at the start of high school.

Alongside this, schools would do well to run a dedicated weekly culture class for older students in which the students are able to learn more about the target language’s culture beyond the mechanics of its language, for example, learning about the history and geography of a country alongside the language.

On the right track

Whilst the dominant attitude towards languages in the UK seems to be that Europeans are far superior, with many Brits resorting to useful instant translation apps while abroad, more should be done within the educational space to encourage British students to take up a language. 

Modern Foreign Languages have had a less popular  reputation for a while amongst school students, however it seems that initial strides have taken place. Far from deeming themselves linguistically inept, Brits should be encouraged to appreciate different languages and cultures in school from a young age, learning as much about the culture of a language as well as the mechanics of it. Educational reform that accounts for the holistic nature of teaching languages will facilitate easier acquisition of languages and, by extension, our appreciation of a culture different to our own.

By Riyan Durrani, the co-founder of Palaver. He has over 10 years of experience in business operations, and co-founded Palaver after identifying a unique opportunity for instant language translation technology.

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