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Is it worthwhile learning another language?

Discussion in 'Modern foreign languages' started by Geekie, Aug 27, 2010.

  1. Geekie

    Geekie Occasional commenter

    Radio 4
    Tuesday 31st August
    12.00 midday
    "On Call You and Yours this week we pose the question: Is it worthwhile learning another language? If you speak a few words of French, German or Chinese, or maybe you're even fluent in them, we what to know how and why you mastered it.
    How does this skill improve your life? Does having another language help you get under the skin of another country, make international friends, and even boost your business?
    Or perhaps you've struggled, or not even bothered, to learn another langauge, relying on others to speak English. After all, plenty of people abroad speak good English, don't they, and relish any opportunity to practise!"

  2. Good topic for discussion in my opinion.
    Obviously as an MFL teacher I'm going to be biased and say that learning another language is definitely worthwhile for a variety of reasons including those already mentioned. Studying Spanish and Portuguese has not only helped me to develop communication skills in the target languages, but it has allowed me to learn so much about the history and culture of their respective countries. Not only that, but I have had excellent experiences which someone who doesn't know a foreign language hasn't had, such as living in and being fully immersed in that country and culture, and making life-long friends from all over.
    Peoples priorities, however, are very different, and in a way I can understand why someone would see it not worthwhile learning a foreign language if they had no desire to visit that country or didn't believe they would ever have an opportunity to use the language anyway. And then there's the whole "well most foreigners learn English anyway so we don't need to" point of view. I think that's the opinion a lot of language teachers come across in a classroom of reluctant learners.
    Sometimes the parents are harder to convince than the pupils!!!
  3. noemie

    noemie Occasional commenter

    I'm trying to convince husband to phone in during his lunch break. As a non-MFL teacher he's a lot more credible than me and will be able to tell of real-life examples of why English is not enough, even in a multi-cultural country like Switzerland.
  4. Geekie

    Geekie Occasional commenter

    Bonne idée! Mr Geekie is an engineer who travels to Europe and beyond on a regular basis and who speaks English (well, Mackem), Dora-the-Explorer Spanish and about 5 words of French.[​IMG]
  5. HelenMyers

    HelenMyers New commenter

    Thanks for setting this up Joe and for the personal tutorial in using Flashmeeting! Lovely to match faces to names.
  6. mlapworth

    mlapworth Occasional commenter

    Just been listening to the discussion. Very interesting. So many good points made. Much more worthwhile than the BBC program itself.
    But so many changes needed to address the current situation / decline in MFL...
  7. Agreed. I have also just listened to the discussion and agree it was far more interesting than the original programme. I thought that the radio discussion was the same old, same old. It got nowhere and will go nowhere I feel. On the other hand many constructive points were made in the flashmeeting, I just hope that they lead to some positive results.
  8. mlapworth

    mlapworth Occasional commenter

    So, how to address the situation....?
    I'll make a start with some ideas, which deal with just a few of the issues.
    1. Scrap the NC, NC levels, sub-levels etc. Stop asking teachers to assign levels / sub-levels to every pupil and to every piece of work every 5 minutes. Get teachers across the UK working together to come up with an alternative system / measure of progress, to try to arrive at a situation where most people think it is a good system, unlike now, where most people think that it is a crock of poo.
    2. Scrap the GCSE courses / exams in their current form.
    Replace the current GCSE with a 5 paper exam, to include:
    a) Listening: all questions in English, requiring answers in English. No dictionary needed as there is no written French to look up.
    b) Reading: all questions in English, requiring answers in English. Not sure about use of dictionary. Reading could include an element of translation from the TL into English!
    c) Language in Use / Grammar: similar to the papers used in the EFL exams. Tests of grammar and vocabulary in context. Manipulation of language and structures. No dictionary. Maybe even include a bit of dictation! (as appropriate for the language). Could also include some translation into the TL! (or maybe put this into the writing exam).
    d) Speaking: assessment by external examiner. No indication beforehand of content. Mix of transactional language, conversation and eg. describing / discussing a picture. Emphasis on assessing the students' ability to produce spontaneous appropriate utterances in response to aural or visual stimuli.
    e) Writing: by final exam. Dictionary allowed (but use discouraged). Variety of question types and stimuli. eg. include something like the old-style picture essay. Include lower level questions, and all questions / instructions to be in English. Could also include some translation into the TL!
    3. Move away from teaching set responses to set questions and the memorisation of whole texts or chunks of text and refocus the emphasis on pupils learning to manipulate and be creative with language. An exam structure like the one above would make a teaching style based on memorising whole chunks of text or set reponses obsolete and unworkable. There would be no point in doing this. The only way to get students to pass exams would be to teach them how to actually use language themselves.
    4. Accept all the evidence which points to it being more difficult in England for pupils to achieve the same grade in MFL compared with other subjects, and shift grade boundaries accordingly.
    5. Look at alternatives to existing course structures.
    a) Consider ideas such as Michel-Thomas-type structures based on building on a core of immediately useful and useable language.
    b) Consider entirely new approaches to how we actually teach new material, such as TPRS, as used fairly widely in the USA, I believe, but practically unheard of in the UK.
    c) Look into research on using high-frequency words, focusing on these from the outset and making them much more of a priority than KS3/4-style vocab sets (eg. modes of transport, family, school subject) - students need to know which words are the most important.
    6. Accept that even if we get all students doing languages again to age 16, this doesn't mean that they have to do a GCSE. Maybe even accept (depending on your view) that it's better if we don't have languages for all, but make it something that aspirational students / parents will see as a must have (eg. by doing no.7 below). Make MFL available to all in option choices / blocking, so that it's difficult not to choose a language.
    7. Encourage universities to emphasise the importance of a decent level of MFL as part of a rounded education and maybe even to make a MFL GCSE a requirement for uni entry onto a degree course.
    8. Scrap league tables all together. Try to engender a new culture where students are seen as being responsible for how well they do at school, rather than it being down to the teacher (whilst of course maintaining safeguards in place to ensure that teachers are not just winging it all of the time...). Create a situation where GCSEs (or their equivalent) are as easy / hard as one another, so it's easier to see where effective / less effective teaching is taking place.
    I'll stop there for now. There's just so-o-o-o much that's wrong with the current situation, you could go on all day...
  9. I agree with much that you say - a lot of it was covered in the flashmeeting last night. Your point about high frequency language is well made, but it was introduced in 2003/2004 with the KS3 Framework, which was largely ignored by most schools because it was incompatible with GCSE. The "refreshed" KS3 Framework now ties in with the KS2 Framework, and for the first time we have some joined up thinking, particluarly if you factor in the new secondary curriculum, with its exhortation to be creative, work in cross-curricular fashion and break away of the tyranny of the topic. We can see a new paradigm for language learning, with a continuum from age 7 to 14, and the planning instruments are there for us to use.
    There are, however, too many departments that are not persuaded by the skills argument. The two most frequent comments I get are "It's all very well, but I've still got to get them through GCSE", and "Is there a text book that delivers the new framework?", which kind of defeats the object! The building blocks for a vibrant, engaging and motivating curriculum already exist. The sterling work done by the team of Regional Subject Advisers up and down the country over the last three years should have raised awareness and directed departments towards new ways of doing old things. I am not convinced, however, that the new curriculum and Framework have been universally embraced, and we risk another opportunity passing us by.
    You are correct to highlight the assessment issue, but the noises emanating from Michael Gove and NIck Gibb do not inspire confidence. They are wedded a National Curriculum that is a "core national entitlement organised around subject disciplines" (DfE, August 2010). This would appear to rule out Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) and other more creative ways of working. They have disbanded QCDA, leaving the work done on Assessing Pupils' Progress in MFL hanging in the wind. They have strangled the languages diploma in the womb, not even at birth. We seem to be heading back to 1991, with ten separate silos of sometimes disconnected and sometimes overlapping knowledge. ICT has been summarily dismissed as a distraction, and the Harnessing Technology budget filleted to the tune of £100m in order to fund the free schools idea. Then there's the question of league tables. While schools can boost their averages by avoiding subjects perceived to be "diificult", then they will continue to do so. The reporting of MFL results and the ill-fated benchmarks put forward by Jacqui Smith five years ago have had no effect, as evidenced by this year's numbers. These are structural issues over which we as teachers and language professionals have little direct influence, save to lobby our elected representatives in a loud and sustained manner. The role of the professional organisations such as ALL and CiLT, is critical, and we must exhort them to put pressure continuously into areas where it is going to create a huge nuisance value.
    Publishers also have a responsibility to provide material which underpins the new pedagogies. It is too easy for departments to say "We don't really have a scheme of work - we just follow the text book". OFSTED and HMI have criticised teaching in MFL in the past for an over-reliance on published courses. As long as publishers continue to produce them, schools will continue to use them. What is needed is much more flexible,open-ended material in the form of resource packs which promote thinking skills and address the idea of thematic learning. The Northern Ireland curriculum has already gone some distance in this respect (www.nicurriculum.org.uk)
    Yes, there is so much wrong with the current situation, and it's up to us practitioners to band together a present a united front.
  10. I like your ideas for the language in use, speaking and writing exams (except that I wouldn't allow dictionaries in any exams) and including translation and dictation, but why would all questions have to be in English for listening and reading? Surely we should be trying to increase the amount the target language is used, not decrease it, otherwise it has a bit of a 'dumbing down' feel to it.....
    Definitely- I think all pupils should study languages up to age 16, but instead of forcing lower ability pupils to struggle through a GCSE and get a rubbish grade they won't be able to do anything with, why not use NVQs or maybe those ASSET qualifications? Then they could maybe study something specific that they were more interested in like business language. Or I know some schools where a language is compulsory for all those likely to get a decent grade in it, so maybe that could also be an option.
    Again, definitely. I think some top unis already have a C in a GCSE language as a minimum entry requirement for certain courses.
    I think league tables definitely need reforming to avoid teachers focusing excessively on the C/D borderline kids and to avoid schools pushing their kids towards mickey mouse vocational qualifications that are supposedly equivalent, but if you scrapped them altogether, how would schools be held accountable?
  11. mlapworth

    mlapworth Occasional commenter

    The listening exam should be a test of listening. Not a test of understanding exam rubrics in TL. Listening and reading should not test the student's ability to write in the TL either.
    The use of TL questions (and therefore the avoidance of English) in reading and listening papers has led to a particular type of exam being set where students tick boxes or select multiple choice, or true or false etc. for the most part. This has led to examiners setting texts / questions etc where they are trying to trip up the student by using synonyms or words with similar meaning, or opposites / negatives etc. It's all just too artificial. Questions and answers in English are the best way to really check understanding of a text. There are all sorts of ways of doing this, including true/false, multi-choice, question and answer, summary of text, translation of text etc etc. This way there are far more possibilities for setting reading papers that really test understanding.
    Inspections, self-monitoring, results analysis etc. Don't hold the school accountable for a bad teacher. Don't hold a teacher accountable for bad students.
  12. I don't understand why not allow a dictionary in exam situations. Surely, using a dictionary properly is a skill in itself? Surely not allowing a dictionary is artificial as in real life you would have a dictionary in most situations - certainly when reading or writing a text. Also, over reliance on a dictionary becomes immediately apparent, and is self penalising so why not allow one in an exam?
    I agree with the idea of questions and answers in English to test understanding of a text - many times in a GCSE paper it has been all to easy to simply copy out a phrase from the text which happens to be the correct answer without the pupil having a clue.
    The problems are universal - too much blame on teachers for underperformance in kids (although I wouldn't argue the fact that there are plenty of incompetent teachers out there), too much focus on league tables - leading to changes in the curriculum (i.e. dumbing down the courses), too much opportunity for people to cheat (swapping the coursework component for the controlled assessments is a case in point - I can see a plethora of ways to cheat with this and it's only my professional integrity stopping me from doing so!). Unfortunately, we teach a subject that is harder than many subjects, and heads are dropping languages in their droves in favour of a safer bet at GCSE. We have kids coming into our sixth form on the basis of a BTEC and and NVQ because that is their magic 5 A*-C. How they are expected to achieve anything at A Level is beyond me!

  13. mlapworth

    mlapworth Occasional commenter

    Which is why the GCSE exam needs scrapping and replacing with something which rewards students who have learned to manipulate the language. The GCSE as it stands makes it much safer for teachers to stick to teaching by topic and teaching pre-prepared answers to pre-prepared questions. Teachers go as far as they can within the (often unclear) boundaries set by the exam boards, so that they can't be accused by their managers of failing to give their students the best possible chance of achieving a good GCSE grade. We need to make it all about teaching AND learning again.
    I'm sure that a complete overhaul of the assessment system would go a long way towards changing the way that teachers teach. Look at KS3 now. Far too much time is given over to assessing / showing evidence of 'progress' using nc levels and sub-levels (and things such as APP?). Anyone with half a brain knows that if we were to focus on the nc levels as the measure of progress to the exclusion of everything else, we could have kids performing at level 4 or 5 in a few weeks. There's nothing wrong (or at least not so much) with using the nc levels as they were originally intended, ie. to describe the level achieved by a child by the end of the key stage - but we shouldn't be using them to constantly flog students and teachers with.
    Similarly with GCSE. If the exam began to properly test students' knowledge and understanding of the language and grammar, their ability to write unaided (except perhaps with dictionaries), their ability to produce spontaneous spoken responses, their ability to understand spoken and written language, teachers would be forced to focus on teaching language and using methods which are most helpful in helping students to learn a language, rather than preparing mini-responses / texts which can be stored and stitched back together at a later date for use as an oral exam responses (to a prepared question) or as a piece of (pre-marked and corrected) written coursework.
    I'm afraid publishers will only publish what they think they can sell. So they aren't going to be too adventurous while the existing KS3 exists with its (ofsted driven?) focus on measuring nc sublevels every 5 minutes. And while the GCSE exists in it's current form, where's the incentive for them to change from the GCSE topic-based format (with minimal grammar) that has been around for the last decade or so. The Michel Thomas course for schools looks really good, but I don't think they've sold that many, because teachers are probably concerned that it doesn't fit in well with the nc or GCSE specs.
  14. mlapworth

    mlapworth Occasional commenter

    Yes, you're right. I was unsure about dictionary use in reading, but it would probably be a good thing. I think the ideal for a reading exam would be to have dictionary and a no dictionary part, like they have with calculators in maths exams. But this would probably be asking too much.
    There'd be no need for a dictionary in listening, as the student would not be presented with any written TL.
    If there were a use of language / grammar paper, I would argue that a dictionary shouldn't be used here, as the idea of the paper is to test what the student knows about grammar and vocab in use.
    Precisely. So changing the exam format so that there are absolutely no opportunities for cheating would make sense. AND would make the admin burden on teachers themselves far less. AND would almost certainly result in far more experimentation with different teaching styles and methods. AND would replace the emphasis on the Learning side of Teaching & Learning.
  15. Hmmm, I can see why it's a bit silly to have the listening and reading exams test writing when there's a separate exam for that, and it would definitely be better to have more question and answer, summary, translation etc as opposed to simple box ticking of true or false, multiple choice etc, but surely good students should be able to understand instructions in the TL? Similarly, I don't really see why using synonyms, opposites, negatives etc is trying to 'trip up' the students- isn't it just assessing their knowledge of the language? After all, distinguishing between 2 words that mean completely different things or between posiitves and negatives is rather fundamental to understanding the language!
    What about wider accountability to eg parents though? Obviously parents need to use much more than league tables when choosing a school, like going to visit it, talking to the teachers and kids etc, but wouldn't you want to have at least some indication of how successful they were at getting the kids good grades? Plus, to a certain extent, a school is accountable for a bad teacher by hiring/not firing them (although I know it's very hard to fire incompetent teachers, especially if you have trouble recruiting staff) and if one teacher's results are significantly worse than another's with no reasonable explanation, then it can't all be the students' fault.
  16. mlapworth

    mlapworth Occasional commenter

    Because, for example, in listening exams, questions are set where, (a) the correct answer requires the student to recognise the word and then understand words such as negatives that qualify it, while (b) a student who just recognises the word but doesn't hear the extra qualifying information will be drawn into a trap and get it wrong, while (c) a poor soul who doesn't even hear the word and hasn't a clue what is being said will guess the correct answer and have a better chance of getting the answer right than student b (who we've already said will definitely get it wrong because they know a little, but not enough).
    There's no need for this type of question. There are MUCH better ways of ascertaining exactly how much a student understands (in both listening and reading).
    The league tables aren't very informative about how good the school is anyway. They tell us as much about the social make-up of a school / catchment area as they do about the quality of teaching. Parents like to know which school has got all the nice kids in it, I guess....
    Of course schools need to be able to recognise and deal with poor teaching. I'm not saying they shouldn't. And it is easy to see if poor teaching is happening, although not necessarily just by looking at exam results. In some schools MFL is nicely setted at GCSE and there is a good work ethic, good discipline procedures in place etc so that teachers can teach and pupils can learn. In other schools you can have A* to G candidates in the same class, behaviour issues, poor SMT, etc etc. It isn't as simple as saying good teacher = good exam results or good school = good exam results.
    I'd like the emphasis to be placed much more on students taking responsibility for their own exam results. I've taught classes of kids where nobody gave a damn whether they passed their GCSE or not, except me, because I knew I was going to be judged on it. You can bust a gut trying all sorts of ways to teach information, but you can't make the ******* learn it.
    I live in Spain, where my children have just done the equivalent of their GCSEs. There are no external exams, in fact. It's all decided by teacher assessment throughout the year. Passing the final year of compulary education is pretty much the same as passing every other year. You have to pass everything. If you fail more than 3 subjects you have to retake the year. If you fail 3 or fewer subjects you have to retake the exams until you pass them, even if you don't have to retake the year. Teachers are seen as people who impart knowledge and test what has been learnt. It's up to the students to make sure they learn.
    Now, I'm not saying that this situation is ideal - it's far from it - but it does mean that students know that they have to work if they want to pass. And it's very unusual to blame the teacher if students don't come up to the expected level. I've known situations where only a handful out of a class of 25 kids passed an assessment. If that had been my class, I'd have supposed that there must have been a problem with the way I'd taught the info. But in this case, the teacher said that they were a weak group and didn't work hard enough. They were forced to work harder because they knew that the teacher wasn't going to bend over backwards to make it easy for them. It isn't ideal, but it displays a different emphasis, and one which we need to get back into the UK education system.
    But maybe we should focus on fixing MFL first rather than trying to fix the whole system. ;o)
  17. Yeah, I suppose that makes sense. I think that's one of the main problems with the current GCSEs in MFL- one of my housemates last year admitted that the only reason he got a C in French was because he guessed most of the answers. Come to think of it, he also said most of his class didn't even know what they were supposed to be doing because they didn't understand the instructions, which backs up your earlier point about questions being in English. So until (or, let's face it, IF) we get a MUCH higher level of language learning happening in this country, I guess there is a need to have instructions in English and clearer questions.
    That is the main issue with league tables under the current system, where private, grammar and faith schools make comprehensives worse by poaching all the clever, middle-class kids and leaving them to cope with more than their fair share of the 'problem' kids. I always think it's silly that grammar schools with 100% 5 A*-C are seen as brilliant, whereas comprehensives with around 50% are seen as bad. GCSEs aren't exactly rocket science, and a kid clever enough to pass the 11+ SHOULD manage 5 Cs in their sleep, no matter how good or otherwise the teaching is. Meanwhile, getting half of kids at an inner city comprehensive where lots of them come from broken homes, have useless parents who couldn't care less about them and where there are problems with gangs etc etc to pass 5 GCSEs with decent grades is a pretty good ahcievement. That and the use of vocational qualifications supposedly worth 1, 2, 3 or even 4 good GCSEs does make league tables in their current format rather meaningless. I think there needs to be a much more detailed breakdown of the results, eg numbers of A*s and As and subjects studied, but of course that wouldn't be as easy to announce in headline figures of 'record exam results' every year.....
    I think that's why comparisons between departments in the same school make much more sense when it comes to seeing how different teachers are doing, because (broadly speaking) the same kids will be taught, the same classroom arrangements (ie setting or mixed ability) will be used and SMT will be the same. Of course, there are some factors that make MFL different, eg harsh grading makes it more difficult to get grades, but the fact that it's now optional means only the brighter and more hard-working students choose it. But if the A*-C percentage in another optional academic subject like history was around 70%, whereas for MFL it was only around 30%, you'd have to question whether something was going wrong with the teaching.
    I completely agree with you about Spain. I worked as an English language assistant in a secondary school there for my year abroad and I couldn't believe how different it was. In some ways, as you described, it was a lot better, eg pupils taking responsibility for how well or otherwise they did, fewer external exams, teachers trusted to do their jobs and behaviour much better, at least in the school I and most of my language assistant friends worked at. But at the same time, I worked with one incredibly lazy teacher who clearly hated her job, turned up at the start of the lesson with nothing prepared and made extremely non-PC comments about gypsies being thieves and even telling one kid he'd have to 'work like a black' to pass the year!! So I'd hesitate to place all the blame on any kids who failed after being 'taught' by her, and that's why I think we do need some sort of accountability regime in place. it would just be good if we could find the right balance between the two systems!
  18. mlapworth

    mlapworth Occasional commenter

    I know. My own children tell me stories like this all the time. That's why I said it is far from ideal. Add to this the fact that access to teaching positions is by oposiciones in Spain, which are based on subject knowledge rather than pedagogy (or any ability to teach).
    I agree that we need to find a balance.
    I think that if we had teachers trained like they are in the UK, combined with students taking responsibility for their own performance, as in Spain, we'd be a lot better off in the UK.
  19. Definitely, that sounds like the ideal. Sadly, I can't see it happening any time soon though.....
  20. mlapworth

    mlapworth Occasional commenter

    9. Have a proper think about where primary languages fits into the bigger picture of producing competent linguists.

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