We’re doing the pluperfect today. Can’t wait!

I find myself in an odd position nowadays. Having spent my entire career teaching languages or working with languages teachers and loving my job I seem to be highly critical of what is going on currently in the world of languages teaching. in fact one tweeter recently asked me if it is because I am monolingual! So I will just restate my position

I believe in languages for all in both primary and secondary schools

I believe that every child must have the opportunity to learn at least one foreign language.

I would love this learning to continue up until the age of 16 but I cannot subscribe to this at the moment. I explain some of my reasons in my first blog that you can click on below.

My main concern is that languages in the UK really seem not to be producing young people who love to communicate with and get on with others from different countries and cultures. They start off with such enthusiasm and then, even if they do well at GCSE, they seem to want to walk away. It is easy to rehearse why this happens. It has been done many times. Here are some personal thoughts. This is not the fault of languages teachers who are some of the hardest working, creative and educationally caring people in the world.

My view is that the MFL “community leaders” and those advising the DFE- if there is such a thing nowadays – spend far too much time tub thumping, looking backwards and being “passionate about languages” and not nearly enough time looking at MFL in the context of how individual schools and general education function. Having worked closely with DFE during the CILT years I understand how Ministers and civil servants call the tune in many ways but I truly believe that the real influences on the future of language teaching should be brought to bear by school and subject leaders. These are the people who should decide what is in the best interests of their pupils. Is GCSE the right exam? Should it be several years of one language or should pupils learn less content in more languages? Are there some pupils who should legitimately be withdrawn for reasons known best to the school?

We have to stop the almost evangelical approach to language teaching that seems to have got a grip. It terrifies me as it can devalue other subjects and perpetrate the “languages are academic and therefore more important than other subjects” myth. In my experience many of the claims that we make for learning languages are exactly the same as claims quite rightly made by other subject teachers for their subjects. In curriculum planning and options choices it is what is best for the child that matters.

We can be awfully precious  too! I remember years ago a fantastic primary teacher made a mistake in a song that she had written for her pupils and posted on the Early Language Learning forum. She had used (please keep smelling salts at hand!)  la Portugal instead of au Portugal! The year 6 pupils were singing the song beautifully, they were loving it and learning French and the names of all the countries who were playing in the European Football Cup at the time. Within minutes the Spot a Mistake police were at work and posting to the forum…the great teacher was distraught and said “I am not sure I should be teaching French. I will never have the confidence to share anything publicly again.”  Great result. Not.

When a group of us met with a certain Schools Minister in a “thinktank” (misnoma if ever there was one) a few years ago he asked 2 questions

  1. Are they fluent by the end of Year 6?
  2. When do you teach the Pluperfect?

The above examples involving a primary teacher and a Schools Minister are for me at the heart of the darkness.

Our exam system (and some of our linguists)  values only perfection and makes us think that unless you can become fluent there is no point in learning a language and you should certainly not have the gall to speak it in public! So bad luck if you communicate badly but you get your message across. Strangely though we all praise the taxi driver abroad and the waiters who speak to us in minimal English and make us feel welcome in their country. Would they get GCSE in English as a Foreign Language?

WELL! I can swim. I will never win an Olympic medal but nobody makes me feel ashamed of the bit that I can do or the way I do it. For me asking us all to be fluent is the equivalent of saying that unless we have a chance of winning the gold medal it is not for us. And we must never, ever pretend that we can speak the language, this would be audacity of the highest degree.

I know that there are really good and influential people in the world of MFL who feel the same and who like me have strong views on how languages need to change and how we have to rethink the agenda. None of this is  politically radical but I simply know that we have to ditch some of the past and be realistic and not sentimental about the future. This is not about lowering standards but about removing the fear of speaking another language.

My final point for this blog is that I rail against the idea that comes from some MFL bods that those who do not speak a modern language are culturally deficit! This is arrogant nonsense. If it were true then many of my friends and family – clever, cultured, intelligent and knowledgeable and truly decent people would be culturally deficit. Truth is many of them are far more cultured in other areas than me – I am the person who just happened to be good at languages! Thank you Mrs Phillips, Mrs O’Hara and the Bertillon family! And they, the musicians, the artists, the sportsmen and women, the designers and others know what my reaction would be if they were to suggest that I am culturally deficit because I am simply not as good as them at drawing or playing an instrument or ballet or gymnastics.






When will my hovercraft be full of eels? Languages for all and the EBacc. Let’s just look at what might be the consequences.

Having a very smart new computer I no longer have an excuse to put off my long promised blog. The problem is I know that I have to be brief otherwise no-one will want to read. So I am going to start by putting my head above the parapet and share what I think are some worrying aspects at what is happening in the world of language teaching in England at the moment.

I believe in languages for all at both primary and secondary school

I do not believe in GCSE for all. This is quite a different animal.

Like many I had hoped that the new GCSE in languages would be fit for the 21st century and the young people who want to use a language for practical as well as academic purposes. In my opinion the new GCSEs are backwards looking, unclear in purpose and now rooted in a retrograde approach to why and how we learn languages. I am not even going to begin to look at the alarming lack of the use of modern technology in the new GCSEs. There are far better people than me to do this amongst the mfltwitterati. I am going to focus on just a few of the things that worry me most, why I think these have come about and what may be the consequences.

If we really are committed to languages for all then our main areas of focus must be:

  1. language teaching that is right for all
  2. assessment that allows all learners to show what they can do rather than penalise them for what they cannot do

In the new GCSE learners still have to do some really bizarre things. Let’s look at listening exams. Yes they are still built around the disembodied voice i.e. the tape recorder by any other name, in which the listener has to pick out certain details and avoid the occasional and deliberate red herrings put in by the exam writers pour s’amuser? Ha ha that’ll catch ’em out! They hear lourd. I bet some of them won’t know it’s about a heavy lorry but will think that it is something religious. This actually happened in one exam paper when I was still teaching! Our department complained

In my opinion this type of listening test is completely unfit for purpose. Surely listening is part of a conversation usually face to face or even on the phone in which participants are aware of the context? Or even better why can’t we have a listening exam that is a DVD of people talking? The GCSE student can then work out the context, see the person, look at the body language and facial expressions. All massive clues in real life communication.

However we have been told for decades that this is simply too expensive. Well I am prompted to paraphrase; “if you think great testing in language learning is expensive then try bad testing.” We all know the cost of this. And so much research has shown that students hate listening to the tape recorder or computer sound system. So alien.

And as for the newly introduced translation tests! How high am I on this (dead) horse?

Translation into and out of the foreign language went out with O level. I remember post A level sleepless nights when I was convinced I had failed because I did not know the French for “a clearing” or the English for le perron. But in this new(ish) century pupils will once again be obliged to translate both into the foreign language and out of the foreign language into English. Now I have no problem with translation as a teaching activity and we can actually make it enjoyable. But in my opinion it has no place in GCSE exams.

What worries me most is the backwash effect that translation and old fashioned disembodied listening will have on language teaching and learning from Year 7 onwards. A strange and unwelcome move away from authenticity and a leap into the “my hovercraft is full of eels today and was full of eels yesterday and will be full of eels tomorrow” school of language teaching!

So let’s really look at why this has happened. Who has advised on this new curriculum which may set many up to fail? Why was the Languages Ladder in which thousands of pounds of public monies were invested and which was about motivating and rewarding all learners and raising standards in achievement and attainment so gleefully abandoned? Why was the Language Diploma welcomed at all 3 levels by teachers, HE and employers abandoned? What about other alternative qualifications?

If the languages community is happy and some may even be jubilant – their job here is done – that languages are a key feature of the EBacc in the form of GCSE then we are subscribing to the legacy of languages as an academic discipline for some and not as a communication  tool that should make all learners see the world beyond their immediate horizons.