Which language should we teach in school?

by Linda Fisher

Increasing motivation for language learning in UK schools and encouraging children to maintain their languages study past the point at which they have the chance to stop is an ongoing challenge. One important question here is: to what extent are success and motivation linked to the particular language pupils study?

The myth of the monolingual Brit, who refuses to speak foreign languages, has been supplemented in recent years by the narrative that we are not only unwilling, but also unable to speak foreign languages. For example, the 2012 European Survey on Language Competences, which sought to provide comparable data on standards of achievement in 15-year old learners across 16 participating countries, showed pupils in England languishing at the bottom of the table, where the learning of the first foreign language (French) was concerned.

The figures, however, tell a slightly different story when we consider the learning of the second foreign language. For example, Sweden, which had topped the charts for English proficiency, languished at the bottom when it came to the learning of the second foreign language (Spanish); learners in English secondary schools who were studying German as a second language did better.

Leaving aside the difficulty of providing robust data from such surveys, this study provides support for the idea that the language learned really does matter. Motivation for English learning is so strong in most parts of the world that for many learners it is now a life skill as much as a foreign language. Motivation for studying the second and third foreign languages, however, can be as difficult to achieve in other parts of the world as it is for the first in our own setting.

In Europe and the rest of the world English’s position as the foreign language of choice remains unassailable. For example, the 2017 Eurodice Report, which provides key data on teaching languages at school in Europe, reports that in 2014 virtually all EU students (97.3 %) studied English during the entire period of lower secondary education. After that came French (33.7 %), German (23.1 %) and Spanish (19.1 %), with other languages rarely studied.

The question of which language should we teach our learners in England remains a source of debate. The great educationalist and forward thinker Comenius proposed over 400 years ago that learners should be educated in many languages: the mother tongue, the language of the neighbour, the nearest language of regional importance, and in the universal tongue.

The most recent Language Trends report produced by the British Council found that we are still teaching the language of our neighbours (French in 94% of state schools, Spanish in 70% and German in 44%), but very few others. By Comenius’s reckoning we need, in a globalised world, to pay attention to languages with strategic importance, such as Mandarin and Arabic. Similarly, where mother tongue education is concerned with around 20% of our students already having some ability in a community language other than English this constitutes not only a great resource but also an issue of entitlement to education in a home language.

Greater diversification should be a key policy objective. This is not easy – English speakers will find studying some of these languages more difficult due to their greater differences to English, the structure of the embedded school curriculum is difficult to change and teacher supply is an issue; it is, however, vital. Two recent initiatives constitute a good start: the DfE has set up a Mandarin Excellence Programme, making available £10 million to secondary schools to provide intensive teaching in Mandarin for selected pupils, and Language Futures is an innovative project that allows learners to select a language to learn that they already have connection to or that interests them. Above all, we need to help learners to identify themselves as multilingual, as lifelong learners of languages and to envisage a future self where language learning is central to who they are (see Strand 4 of the MEITS project).

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