Does Modern Foreign Languages Have An Image Problem?
By Rachel Wellfair-Priest
The picture for Modern Foreign Languages in English secondary schools is not pretty. The number of students opting to take a GCSE in a language is in decline despite the government’s ambition for 90% of pupils to study a full suite of Ebacc subjects by 2024. The trend continues at A-Level, with French seeing a 5.8% decrease in entries in 2022, one of the biggest drops of any subject last summer.
This of course feeds through to university and, in turn, to teacher education; the recruitment shortage is frankly frightening, with just 34% of the required number of MFL trainees registered for 2022-23. This makes MFL one of the most under-recruited subjects in the curriculum.
Yet according to a survey by the British Council, 69% of adults in the UK wish they had kept up the language they learned at school. Businesses are crying out for linguists, and the subject has so much to offer; bilingual people earn more on average than those who only speak one language, and languages open the doors to travel, learning about new cultures, and meeting new people.
So, with so many benefits and opportunities, why is language-learning in crisis, in English schools?
One possible reason cited by Ofsted in their subject review of MFL for the lack of motivation to learn languages is the perception that languages are difficult. This perception is identifiable in academic literature, policy reports, as well as in the media, and even by colleagues working in schools. Ofqual’s inter-comparability review in 2019 did find evidence of harsh grading in French and German, and adjustments were made. But the ‘difficulty’ perception is about more than examinations; the idea that learning a foreign language is too much effort and probably not necessary or relevant for English people as ‘everyone speaks English anyway’ appears to permeate our whole culture, perhaps never more so than in post-Brexit England.
Much of this damage is done subconsciously. In a recent Twitter poll, 85.7% of teachers responded that they had heard a colleague speak negatively about languages, either as a difficult or undesirable subject to study. When these opinions are articulated, even from one colleague to another, negative perceptions of language learning are perpetuated.
The proposed solution in the review to these issues is to focus on improving students’ level of proficiency by recommending an approach based on the ‘three pillars’ of vocabulary, grammar, and phonics. Few teachers would dispute the importance of developing mastery of these elements, but the question of how we go about doing this – and to what extent ‘form’ should come first and communication later – has proven divisive.
Right problems, wrong solutions
Ofsted’s MFL review has correctly identified some of the challenges our subject faces. However, I believe that we should proceed with caution when considering how to solve these problems. Some have responded by advocating a ‘form-focused’ approach centring around explicit grammar and not deviating too far from a ‘most frequent words’ list. To what extent will this enable students to perceive languages as less difficult and to enjoy learning them? Furthermore, the negative rhetoric around MFL itself that is a big part of the problem. By constantly framing the subject as difficult, as irrelevant, as the problem subject on the curriculum, and down-talking MFL, we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If pupils see languages as difficult and irrelevant, what can we practically do to enact positive change?
1. Spread the joy
Instead of framing languages as difficult, we need to change the rhetoric. This means more conversations and comments from colleagues in all roles about how amazing languages are. What if every time a child heard a member of staff talking about languages it was about how beautiful, fascinating, or useful languages are? About how significantly advantaged people who speak two or more languages are compared to their monolingual peers in many aspects of life?
It also means considering how we can teach a rich and demanding curriculum in a way that actually motivates pupils to do that hard work. As Daniel Willingham has pointed out, thinking requires effort and hard work, but curiosity and interest can provide a way in. As Mary Myatt puts it, ‘when we are curious, we have an intrinsic motivation to want to find out more’.
In the context of languages, what does this kind of curiosity and intrinsic motivation look like? It of course follows that a sense of self-efficacy is built through mastery. But to get to that stage, where is the ‘in’? For MFL, it is likely to involve opportunities for spontaneity and creativity, and creating a space where ‘giving it a go’ is acceptable. It means affording students the space to learn about topics or vocabulary that are relevant to them, even if those things may not technically be on the most frequent words list. As departments carefully consider the implications for our curricula of Ofsted’s ‘recommendations’ and the resultant new exam specifications, we should be mindful not to focus too narrowly on the ‘features’ of a language in isolation. We should also consider what knowledge and experiences are demanding, enriching, interesting and valuable in and of themselves to learners and users of languages.
The media has a role to play here, too; instead of constantly reading about how unpopular and difficult languages are, we need to share and celebrate solutions-focused, collaborative work and examples of successful, joyful language learning experiences.
2. Raise the profile of MFL
If part of the problem is that students do not see languages as relevant, this may in part be because they do not understand the value of languages. The profile of STEM subjects via, for example, careers workshops has massively increased over recent years. Yet equivalent events and outreach programmes for MFL are rare. This is in spite of the fact that it is estimated that a lack of language skills costs the UK economy £48 billion per year, equivalent to 3.5% of GDP.
In the Trust I work in, we have recently organised and run virtual ‘Careers in MFL’ morning, in which Year 9 students heard from the universities of Oxford and Bristol, as well as speakers from international business such as Rachel Smith of Showbie (@lancslassrach). These speakers presented enthusiastically on the possible career paths and benefits of knowing other languages for further study and in the world of business.
The impact was immediately evident; students’ feedback after the event was that they had no idea just how many opportunities and advantages knowing another language could bring. Of course, as MFL teachers, we had already told students languages were important, and had even already shared some of the very same facts and figures that the presenters mentioned. But a high-profile event like this one with external experts relaying those messages had a different kind of impact. We need to make learning about careers and higher education in languages through events like these more easily accessible if we want to emphasise their value.
3. Prioritise communication, not just accuracy
Vocabulary, grammar, and phonics are of course essential elements of language learning and in order to communicate effectively, accuracy in each of these is important. Yet I would urge caution about losing sight of the fact that languages are just that: languages. By definition, languages are systems of communication. To learn a language, we indeed need to master the sounds, words, and grammar of that language but always with the core purpose of using these to communicate.
As MFL departments yet again review their curricula, we should be mindful not to divorce ourselves too far from language in context and the core, communicative purpose of learning a language. If the challenge for MFL is a need for the subject to be seen as accessible, relevant, and valuable, we would do well to keep in mind what most people want to learn a language for; communication, interaction, and human connection.