Bringing languages to life

Happy student
Suzanne Graham

This summer the percentage of learners sitting a GCSE in a modern language has fallen again, and the same is true for A level languages. Learning another language brings many benefits – not only for communicating with speakers of other languages, with 75% of the world’s population speaking no English at all  - but also for the cognitive and social development of young people.  These benefits include improved cognitive and executive functioning, as well as social and communication skills.  They also have the potential to make people more broadminded and tolerant, offering ‘a liberation from insularity’ (DfE, 2013, p.2) in the words of the National Curriculum for foreign languages. Languages need to be brought to life, especially in the Brexit climate.

Developing intrinsic motivation

But in many ways the continuing decline in the subject is not surprising, and something that can’t be addressed simply through measures such as the English Baccalaureate. We know from research we’ve conducted at Reading for the last fifteen years or so that the key thing is to develop intrinsic motivation in learners to learn a foreign language. Young people who stick with language learning do so because their teachers have developed in them a real interest in the subject that goes beyond seeing languages as useful for career purposes. They also need to feel that their school experiences equip them with the tools to actually communicate in and understand language of a more authentic kind than they typically encounter in the classroom. Unfortunately, curriculum, examination and policy developments haven’t really taken account of these issues sufficiently.   

Alternative approaches

We need to find out more about alternative approaches to language learning that might make learners not only more proficient at language learning but also more intrinsically motivated to carry on with language study. Strand 7,“Linguistic creativity and language learning” aims to do just that by looking at alternatives to the prevalent emphasis on language learning purely for functional purposes. Over the next four years, we will be working with UK learners to investigate the extent to which creative approaches enhance foreign language learning.