Bringing languages to life in the classroom

posted Jan 24, 2013, 12:28 AM by Essia Bernstein

The uptake of modern foreign languages in UK schools is continuing to decline, yet in an increasingly multicultural society and global marketplace the skills developed through language learning are more important for young people than ever. So how can language teachers get young people engaged in languages again?

One of the main barriers for pupils choosing their subject options is a question of relevance. How does learning French/German/Spanish relate to their lives and how will it benefit them as individuals? This relevance will be different for each individual and for each class but it is important that all language teachers acknowledge this barrier and that they can work within the confines of the curriculum to enhance the relevance for their class.

For pupils to successfully learn a language, they need to have self-motivation and they need to be engaged in what they are learning. This is difficult to achieve through a focus on the practical aspects of language learning of vocabulary and grammar, so language classes in school need to take a broader approach looking at the context in which a language has developed and is used.

Looking at different cultures is a great way of introducing this wider context into a language lesson but also has wider benefits of broadening young people's horizons and introducing them to other ways of living. Learning about, sharing and accepting other cultures in a language lesson breaks down barriers between different cultures even beyond English cultures and that of the target language.

Many schools now have increasingly multicultural student bodies. When looking at the culture of the target language, compare their traditions to those of the UK and the cultures from which other class members may originate. Start by comparing the main festivals and holidays that all young people will be familiar with like Christmas, Eid, Hanukkah, New Year and Easter. Get the class involved, asking questions and conducting independent research to explore other cultures. They can then present their findings back to the class using the target language wherever possible.

Taking this approach to language learning also opens up the opportunities for using real artefacts as first hand resources. Language text-books focus on the tools needed to learn the practicalities of a language and to introduce the information and skills needed to pass the exam. Access to real world resources - whether it is traditional foods from the supermarket, musical instruments, CDs, films, newspapers or online sources - can really complement the information within text-books providing up-to-date and relevant context to the language.

It is also important to look at how language is actually used by people to communicate. Having a knowledge of vocabulary and grammar is good, but this is not always enough to effectively communicate the right message. Using online translation tools will instantly demonstrate that you cannot always literally translate text, instead the words need to be read in the context of the whole sentence or paragraph. Similarly, in conversing with people, language is used in different ways depending on the setting. For example in the workplace language is more formal but with friends there will be more colloquialisms and less-formal use of language. Young people can start to get an understanding of this by looking at how the language is actually used, not just how it is used in a text-book.

Learning a language is easier the earlier you begin. There has been much debate about the role of languages in primary schools and this is still continuing. Where most young people start to learn a language is in secondary school. Not only is it harder to get into the new language, it is at this time where teenagers start to become more self-conscious, unsure of speaking up in class for fear of sounding silly or making a mistake. Teachers should encourage risk-taking in the classroom, encouraging children to just get involved and give it a go. Try sharing some of the mistakes you made when you were learning the language and demonstrate how you learnt from it and improved your language skills to give reassurance.

A good language lesson should have a balance of each of the four aspects of language learning - reading, writing, speaking and listening. As with all subjects teachers should take into consideration different learning styles. Some students may be really shy about getting involved in speaking activities whilst others may struggle with quiet reading exercises. Ensuring that each lesson covers each of the four bases will help to meet the needs of all learners in the class.

• John Tanner is head of Languages at Southbank International School. He wrote this blog with the help of his colleagues Maria Donovan, Fabienne Fontaine and Gabriela Hudson. Southbank International School is an IB school based in London. With approximately 70 different nationalities, language learning and development is a core focus throughout the school.

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