Why Languages Need a Re-brand

by Helen Laurenson, University College School 

The start of the third decade of the twenty-first century has been eventful for many reasons. The twin spectres of Brexit and Covid have dealt many blows, both personal and collective, encouraging a swelling sense of insularity and autonomy, from trade deals to vaccine nationalism.  

Para colmo de males, the recent final recommendations of the DfE GCSE Subject Content Review Consultation document make for curious and frankly depressing reading in the context of foreign language study in the UK. This consultation has been untimely in its presentation of ideas which are in conflict with both the attraction of language study and the implicit skills it entails. For example, the proposal eschews the key skills of inference and deductive reasoning across languages in favour of a prescriptive vocabulary list. In addition, the introduction of reading aloud in the target language harks back to days of yore. Worse still, no cultural material is to be used in the examination.  

Unsurprisingly, key stakeholders in the Modern Languages community are aghast, including ISMLA (the Independent Schools’ Modern Languages Association) and the University Council for Modern Languages. 

In the language teaching and learning context, this relapse is depressingly familiar, a volte-face to the bad old days of the linguistic dominance of English, a suspicion of our European neighbours and of languages as a niche, idiosyncratic choice – a quirky underling to the masters of STEM, Economics, Medicine and Law. 

The irony is that languages are never more needed, but not for the reasons with which they have been traditionally associated in the United Kingdom. The rather unstable trajectory of language teaching, with its vacillation between traditional (translation, dictation and grammar), and progressive (communicative) methods, has never quite found its way, and has now been all but flattened by the steamroller that is STEM. 

As Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics marshalled themselves into a powerhouse, languages were being gradually consigned to the starting blocks of the school curriculum, mired in uncertainty as to their broader purpose and functionality. 

A changed academic and global panorama has not helped. In an unstable world, parents and pupils are valuing vocational subjects where job prospects are clear and languages are a luxury.  

The take-up of languages at A level is now contingent on their essential connectivity and complementarity with other disciplines. Look at how Mathematics has smartly aligned itself with Engineering, thus acquiring the protective mantle of a practical and vocational application. So too languages need to be re-packaged as an additional skill which will give candidates the edge in job applications: after all, it is the culturally competent, tolerant and bilingual doctors, engineers and scientists who are most likely to be masters of their fields. 

The pedagogical box-ticker cross-curricular links now needs to do more than adorn the minutes of Academic Board meetings and Departmental Development Plans. Ideally, it should jump into life in the Lower School through dynamic and exciting collaborative projects with Art, History, PE and English. What better than looking at the Cuban Missile Crisis through original propaganda in Spanish, or exploring war through an analysis in Spanish of Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra and Picasso’s Guernica? It is in the Lower School that interest in languages is sown; the start of a continuum of skills, cultural competences and practical application. 

It is here too that we might take inspiration from both the Pre-U syllabus and undergraduate modules, which offer a multi-media approach under a thematic heading. This would address the often questioned ‘usefulness’ of a language, and could cover various disciplines across different year groups. Whilst the initial logistical challenges across departments might take time, a cross-curricular programme – once established – would reap benefits as regards the reinvigoration and re-positioning of languages within the curriculum. It would also serve to promote traditionally less popular languages such as German under the umbrella of themed study – eg the art of Otto Dix in ‘War’ or the ‘Immigrant Experience in Film’ through Almanya – Willkommen in Deutschland.  

The study of films on Immigration in a variety of languages would also broaden pupil experience, opening a space for debate on tolerance, cultural competences and empathy.  Languages are natural allies of movements such as BLM (the Conquest of Latin America, Post-Colonial literature, the Immigration crisis) and the more recent and controversial ‘Everyone’s Invited’ (Gender Politics and the Individual v Society in the works of García Lorca). Immersion in languages via a series of themes would adjust perceptions away from the idea that certain languages, eg Spanish or French, are more worthy of attention than, say, German or Italian. 

Cross-curricular themes would also encourage the acquisition of skills (graded for complexity through the different year groups) about, for example, how to ‘read’ a film, visual literacy in Art and the analysis of historical sources (in the target language).  For variety, football training might be undertaken through the medium of German in order to drag languages literally kicking and screaming out of the classroom and into a (more) natural, transactional theatre. What better tool than a plethora of Latin American films to support an understanding of dictatorship and democracy in Politics than a screening and debate of La historia oficial or No

The range of cross-curricular possibilities afforded through languages makes the DfE GCSE MFL Subject Content Consultation document even more perplexing. The reductio ad absurdum of the syllabus content to 90% of words taken from the 2,000 most frequently occurring words in the target language, the removal of overarching themes and specific topics, all rubric and questions in English and the return to a dictation exercise leave little room for fulfilling language study. The announcement that ‘cultural content will not be specified or tested in the revised subject content’ does not bring joy. A new GCSE that has all the attraction of a glorified vocabulary test will benefit neither the UK nor its linguists.