Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Modern Foreign Languages

"Dw i ddim yn deall; wyt ti'n siarad Saesneg?"
('I don't understand; do you speak English?')

Growing up as an English speaker is, in many ways, pretty cushy. Not only is it the mother tongue of the Anglosphere, it's also one of the official languages of dozens of other countries. It's taught in schools the world over, and you can feel fairly secure in the knowledge that wherever you go another English speaker won't be too far away.

English Spoken Here sign

This plays its part, I'm sure, in the findings of a report released today looking into the declining take up of modern foreign languages in Welsh secondary schools. Although the language teachers interviewed for the BBC news bulletin said that the main issue is that Modern Foreign Languages don't count against the Core Subject Indicator (i.e. success or otherwise in core subjects: English, Welsh, Maths and Science), which is one of the key pieces of data used to rank schools. They argue that if MFL were included in the CSI the uptake would rise dramatically.

I can't say that I'm entirely convinced. The schools will show more interest in MFL teaching, there is no doubt about that, but unless the subject is made compulsory I don't know if this would be enough to tackle the widespread apathy towards MFL learning.

GCSE modern language statistics in wales

You have the extra difficulty in Wales of compulsory Welsh, especially in English medium schools in non-Welsh speaking areas. I was in the first year group to take the compulsory Welsh language GCSE and, though I'm in favour of Welsh teaching in schools, I don't think it's any surprise at all that 2002 saw the beginning of a steep decline in MFL take-up. Essentially, you're already learning a 'foreign' language - many people feel no inclination to start learning another.

Welsh alphabet
Welsh isn't the easiest language to master...

What can be done? Well, the plans in place are all very practical. The usual top performing schools in the subjects to become regional centres of excellence, and working with universities and other institutions to share resources. More promotion of the UK based jobs which need language skills, and introducing MFLs at an earlier age, at primary level.

Wales and England MFL statistical comparison

What should be happening, too, is the promotion of MFLs greatest asset - all the media and things to do it opens up to you. Learning Welsh can be an uphill and (let's face it) boring experience. There's BBC Radio Cymru and S4C but, you know, S4C is a channel which can and often does devote whole days of broadcast time to such events as Young Farmers' Conference. The reality is that 99.99% of the people interested in Young Farmers' Conference are at Young Farmers' Conference. In contrast, learning a modern foreign language offers you a whole new world of literature, film, music, etc, all readily available on the net. There's no excuse for MFL teaching to ever be boring!

The Moomins
We watched Die Mumins the other day - Anthony retreated to the 'man cave' as he says they're too scary...

And, of course, what desperately needs to happen is the breaking away from the chokehold of Spanish, French and German. Almost no schools in Wales offer GCSE level Arabic, Hindu or Urdu, and only a handful offer Mandarin. China and India are the power houses of the future, and standard Arabic is the fifth most widely spoken language in the world. Language learning offers so many opportunities and new ideas to people - but you have to make sure those advantages are obvious enough to offset the long hard slog of becoming proficient in it!

Life with Baby Kicks


  1. What I find most interesting here in the United States is that, in order to get many jobs these days, most employers expect you to be fluent in Spanish (it's the second biggest language spoken here), yet they don't try to teach languages in elementary school or sooner and employers certainly aren't willing to cough up money to get their employees language courses. This is mind boggling to me because most educators and well, anyone who knows about human development knows that children are sponges for knowledge and have the ability to learn several languages, yet the schools aren't teaching them. No, instead they expect us to learn in college when we are already pretty much "set in our ways" so to speak. I picked up some Spanish while working with a predominately Hispanic community but since leaving, I have forgotten most of it. I can't afford Rosetta Stone so that's off the table. I find it increasingly frustrating that by the time my kids are adults, knowing a foreign language or more, will be a necessity but they don't offer them in the elementary level, where the best learning happens. They do offer languages in the middle and high schools but if the kids have other electives that they either have to fill or choose to do something else, it isn't helping them in the long run. This is a great post! I'm glad I read it! Popping over from #effitfriday

    1. That's really interesting, I didn't realise that Spanish was so widely spoken in the States. If you want to work in Wales, Welsh is a real asset and the teaching has come a huge way since I took it because it's so true that you need to catch children young when it comes to learning other languages. By the time I left high school I still couldn't recite the Welsh alphabet or count past 20. The foundation teaching had been incredibly poor, and I just wasn't interested enough to put the effort in myself to go back and correct it!

      The problem is that if you don't want to work in Wales, it's a bit of a useless subject so I do think there needs to be more emphasis on other languages. The benefits of being able to use a language in a business setting are so huge, but a lot of schools still seem to be stuck in the mindset of 'one day you might go on holiday and order a meal'. x

  2. Yeah, the attitude towards language needs to change if we are ever going to progress to a brighter and more fulfilled future. My generation (gen X), particularly seems to be stuck between the old school way of thinking and the new ways of thinking. We are a confused lot, trying to figure it all out. LOL!

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  4. I wish I had kept up with my languages and I agree they need to be introduced earlier, and in a fun and interactive way to keep the learning alive. Being a native English speaker means that I am fundamentally lazy as generally someone somewhere wherever we travel will be able to speak English. It's poor on my behalf I think and I'm trying to rectify by learning a few words before we go any place new.

    1. I think that's it - we've got very little incentive to learn unless it's made as easy and fun as possible! x

  5. Replies
    1. I tried to learn some arabic a while back, and araf is like the borderland between heaven and hell - it must be kind of weird to see it plastered everywhere here! :)


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