Modern languages removed from the compulsory KS4 curriculum in 2004 led to plummeting numbers taking the subject. The EBacc introduced from 2011 pushed numbers back up, but now the advent of Progress 8, which does not require a modern language, is coinciding with another decline at GCSE. At A level, and for university, numbers are in steady and alarming decline. Why are foreign languages apparently so difficult for us in Britain?
We could as educators simply blame the changing curriculum requirements imposed from outside. That would be a lazy approach. We should honestly confront the issues ourselves. In short, I believe that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for language learning have been weakened by the approaches we have taken.
The extrinsic point is easy to deal with. You are extrinsically motivated to learn a language if you know or believe you will need it for later life. The utilitarian argument, if you like.
We live in an increasingly Anglophone world, like it or not. In short, we don’t as English speakers know what language we will need in later life, unlike speakers of almost any other language, who all know they will need English.
So the most important outcome of language learning for an English speaker is actually the meta-learning, the transferable learning, (including confidence in the very possibility of foreign language learning) not actually the language itself.
Once we realise this, the way we organise the curriculum and teach the language changes quite radically. The emphasis shifts. And a side benefit of this is that we learn more about, and gain more control over, our own language in the process, because our explicit knowledge of language per se improves.
It also changes what we want from our teachers: meta language knowledge – linguistics if you like – becomes as important as competence in the language itself.
What about intrinsic motivation then?
The so-called ‘communicative’ approach to language teaching was and is based on the implicit assumption that you learn a foreign language in the same way that you acquired your mother tongue. We don’t perhaps follow this approach quite as evangelically as we did 20 years ago, but its assumptions still underpin much practice, and crucially it is the way very many current language teachers were themselves taught.
However, our innate capacity to ‘deduce’ the grammar which allows for the generation of new sentences is not active beyond earlier childhood, and simple exposure for a few hours a week in the teenage years will not produce fluency.
In fact, it produces frustration and boredom, because it is profoundly uninteresting. Learners need conceptual content to make the subject interesting, not just the memorisation of vast numbers of lexical items.
We have dimly recognised that need for conceptual content, but unfortunately we have addressed it in the wrong way. Instead of going to the heart of how language works and what it is, which would have given the enterprise real intrinsic interest, we have attempted to arrange the learning around supposedly motivating topics such as ‘holidays’ or ‘the environment’.
If teenagers were to be interested in or motivated by such topics, then they would inevitably prefer to discuss them at the sort of level that they inevitably cannot do in a foreign language.
We have further muddied the waters by organising language learning into four ‘skills’ – in my view this is a profoundly misleading approach and produces bizarre phenomena like ‘units’ or lessons on for example ‘listening’, often markedly lacking in intellectual content and intrinsic interest.
Grammar needs always to be at the heart of language learning because, along with the lexicon, this is what language is. Without grammar and a lexicon you cannot generate new language, nor can you ever hope to automatise through structured and challenging practice accurate language production or comprehension. I would argue that this is what gives language learning its intrinsic interest.
A comparison with mathematics is salutary. The mastery approach to mathematics which delivers such success in the Far East emphasises that:
All learners are kept together – we do not assume from the outset that some won’t be very good – and those who need more practice or reinforcement get it between lessons.
Building expertise through extensive and intellectually challenging practice is far more important than covering a lot of topics.
Conceptual understanding is much more important than memorising operations without understanding – don’t ask ‘how do you do it’ but ‘why do you do it this way’.
Depth and mastery are key. We need to stop the defeatist culture of low aspirations in languages. I was at a conference recently where speaker after speaker announced that a few halting phrases in a foreign language were better than nothing, sometimes made a positive impact, and most meetings could then revert to English after the poor Brits had demonstrated how hopeless they were at languages. What message is this kind of talk giving about the subject, or, indeed, about our learners’ potential?
At the same conference a keynote was given by a successful top businesswoman who was there to tell us how important languages were in business. At the end of her talk she admitted that her own language competence was limited to bonjour. And she was the boss. Need I say more?
So, we need to improve extrinsic motivation by stopping pretending that French, or indeed any other specific language, is needed for a successful future. It isn’t. But knowing how language works and therefore how to learn a language in the future might well be.
We need to give language intrinsic interest by adopting a mastery approach akin to that which is proving so successful in mathematics, and understanding that it is more rewarding to master a concept and automatise its application, than uncomprehendingly to memorise a list. And it is more transferable for future language learning, but would require a dramatic rethinking from scratch of curriculum, qualifications and staff development.