The Blog

Speaking in Tongues - Thinking Differently on Language Learning

Apparently at the height of Victorian optimism, the Royal Geographic Society announced victory in the field of all learning, with the invention of the 'lantern slide' a whacking great projector with a candle behind it which would captivate all future generations of learners. An early version of 'death by powerpoint'.

Look at it through a child's eyes...They're soaking up English effortlessly at home, in the playground in different subjects; like a sponge, listening, absorbing, trying new words, getting some wrong - and trying on the odd rude one they shouldn't.

All perfectly natural, organic, evolving, improving, developing, growing, interesting and useful...

Now off to your French lesson - avez vous un chat; ferme le fenetre - no that's feminine don't forget the circumflex and the correct pronunciation ends 'tchhrrre'. Sadly for a lot of students that means Zzzzz. Can't wait to see you next week for another half hour.

But there are great Heads, Teachers and Innovators who are trying new things. I opened a terrific event at the British Council last week looking for new ideas and innovation in language learning from lots of different places.

We had ideas from innovative UK schools, ideas from around the world and from 'Coding Clubs' which have taken off through gamification of learning - giving kids the tools to make their own apps and games.

So what did we learn? First it's not easy. As Neil Strowger, the inspiring Head of Bohunt School in Hampshire reminded us, teaching a foreign language in a UK school is like trying to sow seed in a full blown gale. You scatter a few words and phrases on the somewhat stony soil of young minds and as soon as the bell rings a roaring gust of English blows them away.

As a parent why would you be bothered about all this? Why? Because languages help children to think differently, see things differently; and as recent research has shown the brain learns to works differently when you speak different languages.

At Bohunt School one third of the Year 7/8 school curriculum (all subjects) can now be taught Spanish, French or Mandarin - for the whole school year. And that makes all the difference, here's what Bohunt are achieving:

Because communication is the key to pupil progress, their ability to persevere, problem solve, work collaboratively, work independently and link up their learning are all skills that are explicitly developed. This delivered a 100% pass rate including 72 % A grades in the first French group in 2013 followed by 100% pass rate and 75 % A grades in the first Spanish group. By the end of the first year of the programme, students in the 'Content and Language Integrated Learning' groups are outperforming their peers in all subjects.

Not everyone can be a Bohunt. But as renowned education innovator @GarethMillsLive reminded us: "If we only do what we've always done, we'll only get what we've always got." He also reminded us of limits of grand ideas...

Apparently at the height of Victorian optimism, the Royal Geographic Society announced victory in the field of all learning, with the invention of the 'lantern slide' a whacking great projector with a candle behind it which would captivate all future generations of learners. An early version of 'death by powerpoint'. At the end of the day learning is about big and little people.

So what works?

Getting more immersive - extremely hard in a modern packed school curriculum. But the simple fact is, just like learning to swim, there's a critical mass of time needed 'in the pool' before any of it comes together and it's much, much better to have a Spanish day or a Mandarin Chinese day where you get everyone talking languages - at lunch, in PE, in other subject classes. Really successful schools, like Bohunt have managed to find a PE teacher, someone in the Geography department, a form teacher as well as the language department and created whole days, and now terms and years where pupils do many of their lessons in another language.

Child led - easily said, much harder to find the time to do but we heard from teachers who take the risk of putting kids 'in charge' and focus on role play far beyond the usual classroom banter. It's courageous stuff - kids spending a week running their own virtual 'town council' and dealing with all the challenges. But simpler approaches like 'at the restaurant', 'at the hotel' and at 'the airport' which focus on acting and using vocabulary - in situations which are real and useful are the sort of 'communicative' approach which the British Council uses to teach English to millions worldwide.

Tech and Games - if you've got kids (I have) the easiest way to get them immersed is on a screen. We heard from Code Club how they take a 'Lego' approach and get kids building things - games, and apps, their own ideas - which brings the language, fun and usefulness of coding to life.

But it can be a lonely business. Who'd be a courageous Head or an innovative language teacher - standing alone against a packed curriculum, a draconian 'fault-finding' languages exam marking system, a gale of English blowing outside the door - and kids who think they'd probably rather be elsewhere.

Well if you want inspiration and practical help @joedale is your new hero - a one-stop-Twitter-shop for ideas, inspiration and Modern Foreign Language friends - if you're not part of #mfltwitterati you're seriously missing out.

And you can see our whole event here and the case studies and ideas contributed by a packed room of educationalists and online participants from all around the world

We know we need a step change in the UK's approach to multilingualism and indeed to keep at our cultural awareness - that's not an uncommon problem around the world. More than ever, the world needs young people who are internationally-minded and able to contribute in an interconnected and interdependent world.

But let's not forget languages are also hugely rewarding and fun - I know from my own experience, I'm twice as cheerful in French as I am in English.

There's growing evidence that languages help older brains stay young; and also that adults are just as good at picking up languages as children are - in many cases more so as we have better learning tactics.

Languages are not just for the nation's children, they're for all of us and for all of our lives - we can and should all have a go.