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Machacando en hierro frío – the crisis in language learning

I don’t wish to appear eccentric, but I love speaking different languages. My degree was in Spanish along with a bit of Portuguese, and I always have a go at speaking French when I can. This summer, our family holiday was in Sicily, which gave me the excuse to learn some Italian, through a combination of Duolingo, Michel Thomas and listening to Italian internet radio stations. When we got there, I took every opportunity I could to have conversations in Italian, even though to all intents and purposes I couldn’t speak it, and certainly not to a level that would have got a good GCSE pass.

The thing is, I have developed a special technique that allows me to do this: I don’t get embarrassed by speaking a foreign language, even if I’m not sure how to say something correctly. In fact, I enjoy it. I’ll have a go, throw in a few words from other languages, guess what the grammar rule might be, even make a few things up if I think it helps. I wave my arms around, use facial expressions and enthusiastically adopt the accent and even the stance that seems closest to that of a native speaker (hopefully without causing offence).

I realise that this is not typical of my compatriots. If you want a perfect definition of awkward embarrassment, look no further than an English person abroad who has ordered a bottle of wine by using their phrasebook or plumbing the depths of their memory, in their best schoolboy French accent, completely unprepared for the waiter to ask them which particular wine they would prefer. Cue a look of total panic, immediate reversion back to English or a simple repetition of their original order, exasperation and frustration all round.

As a nation, we may be entering a period when our ability to establish good relationships with others around the world becomes ever more important and language is such a key part of that relationship. Whilst it’s true that wherever we go, we can usually find an English speaker, if we can speak the language of our hosts, then that relationship is so much stronger and deeper. The ability to speak more than one language is a life skill that is invaluable in the modern world, not least because of the respect it demonstrates.

Not only that, but the learning of languages is well known to have impact well beyond the subject itself. The understanding of grammar and vocabulary, the ability to solve problems and use inference and deduction, the use of tone and inflection in speech – all are skills for learning and skills for life. My hunch would be that as a school-improvement strategy, ensuring all students were multilingual would lead to phenomenal outcomes across the curriculum.

The irony is of course, that as this skill becomes ever more valuable, our ability and willingness to do this seems to be declining from our already very low base. The numbers studying languages are declining year on year. In February this year, the BBC reported that language learning is at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium, with German and French falling the most. Their analysis showed drops of between 30% and 50% since 2013 in the numbers taking GCSE language courses in the worst affected areas in England, with a third of schools having dropped at least one language from their GCSE options.

Normally, when things are not working on this scale, we look to policy makers, and expect that they will put measures in place to address it. To be fair, in terms of education, that is what they have tried to do. The introduction of the EBacc, followed by its prominent role in the Progress 8 calculation, and reaffirmed by the government ‘ambition’ that 90% of students should study the full EBacc by 2022 is a clear policy direction and should have led to the widespread uptake of languages.

So why hasn’t it? In my view, our examination and accreditation system actively mitigates against the natural development of language skills for most pupils. The ability to communicate effectively is almost impossible to assess out of context, and we can’t reproduce that context in an exam hall. Even in the elements of the course that focus on spoken language, students are trained to have conversations that far exceed the level of independent conversation that they are able to have, so it is inevitably stilted and unnatural.

The fact is GCSE language specs are formulaic, dry and lacking in relevance. The saddest thing I can say about them is that in my experience, the ability to speak and understand a language with any level of fluency or improvisation is almost irrelevant to success at GCSE. I applaud the amazing MFL teachers out there who work tirelessly to breathe joy into the moribund corpse of the GCSE MFL curriculum, but they’re very often ‘machacando en hierro frío’ (flogging a dead horse).

This is a crisis that needs some radical solutions. Almost every single pupil who walks through the doors of our schools has demonstrated that they can master a spoken language. By the age of 6, they have approximately 2,600 words of expressive vocabulary and 20,000–24,000 words of receptive vocabulary (Lorraine, 2008). Why do they all think that learning a language is so hard? We need to understand what it is that has got them to this level of expert language use and replicate it in the next language they learn.

My first suggestion would be to remove MFL from the EBacc and Progress 8, but prioritise it in the curriculum discussions held by Ofsted, including anything relating to cultural capital. Of course, MFL should be there as an academic option, and a highly valued one, but we should recognise that the academic study of a foreign language is different and separate from the ability to communicate in a real-life context. Some people should have the former, everyone should have the latter.

Secondly, language learning should be present throughout a pupil’s school life, treated as a cross-cutting key life skill that all students study, in the same way that they are expected to study PE, Citizenship and RE. What message does it give about the importance of communicating in other tongues, if the majority of students get to ‘drop’ it at the earliest opportunity?

Thirdly, we should accept that conventional teaching of languages has not worked and that we need to look at a different model, one that learns from the things that have helped us all successfully acquire our first language – immersion, motivation, reward. When we learn a language, meaning comes first, grammar second.

Here’s some suggestions – build in some immersive and fun experiences – assemblies entirely in French, tutor time twice a week only in Spanish, PSHE / Citizenship entirely in German or Italian, on wet playtimes put on the Simpsons in Spanish in the school Hall, school dinner orders only accepted in a foreign language. Most importantly, as the adult models, we need to ‘get over ourselves’ and have a go – of all the things to feel shame about, mispronouncing a word in a language we are still trying to master has to be fairly low on the list.

I realise that the chance of my wish coming true is virtually nil, but that doesn’t stop me from suggesting it. By a quirk of history, we are in the unique position of being able to go almost anywhere in the world and finding someone who can speak English. That used to be an advantage, but now it feels more and more like a handicap. Our children’s ability in language learning is among the worst in the whole world – that really is something to be embarrassed about.

By Dr Heery

I'm the Executive Principal of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values.

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