LinguaMania episode 5: Languages are in crisis in our schools – could creativity help save the subject?


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Welcome to the LinguaMania podcast. Produced by researchers from Oxford University-led Creative Multilingualism, the series explores some fascinating perspectives on languages and language learning, asking: Do we really need human translators? Why do we use metaphors and what do they teach us about other languages and cultures? How much of an unfamiliar language can we understand? Would creative language teaching make the subject more popular? Can languages help protect the natural environment? And so much more, so stop what you’re doing and start exploring the wonderful world of multilingualism!

Episode 5: Languages are in crisis in our schools – could creativity help save the subject?


Can a creative approach to the study of languages enhance learner outcomes? Faced with the dramatic fall in UK students learning a foreign language, Creative Multilingualism's Language Learning research team have been exploring different ways of teaching languages in schools. Could there be a way to help students feel more positive about language learning, while also improving their learning outcomes? In this episode of LinguaMania, Suzanne Graham, Linda Fisher, Heike Krüsemann and Julia Hofweber tell you about a programme they've been running with students learning French and German in schools across the UK.

Listen and download the podcast on Apple Podcasts or University of Oxford podcasts.

Podcast transcript


(00:00 00:58)

Rajinder Dudrah: Welcome to the LinguaMania Podcast presented by the Creative Multilingualism team. We are a group of people who love languages. We think languages are an essential part of being human, they’re part of our identity and part of our culture.  And we think they should be celebrated at every possible opportunity! So our podcasts shine a light on some fascinating aspects of languages and language learning which you might not have come across before.

I’m Professor Rajinder Dudrah from Birmingham City University. I’m also a researcher at Creative Multilingualism. We’re exploring the links between languages and creativity.

(00:58 – 01:35)

As I’m sure some of you are well aware, languages in UK schools are in crisis. The BBC recently did a survey. It showed that since 2013, in some areas of England, up to 50% fewer students are taking language GCSEs.

In this episode of LinguaMania, we’ll be exploring how we can boost the number of pupils who choose to study languages. Now, comparing languages to animals or types of food might not seem the most obvious way forward, but Heike Krüsemann explains why this was one approach taken by her Creative Multilingualism research team.

(01:36 – 02:12)

Heike Krüsemann: As a starting point for improving motivation for language learning, it would be useful to know how today’s learners actually feel about studying languages. We asked 13 and 14-year-old pupils in year 9 of secondary school to compare their experience of language learning with an animal, a type of food, or anything else they could think of. This is so we could access learners’ spontaneous, intuitive, and often previously unarticulated responses. Here’s Linda Fisher with a selection of our teenage participants’ amazingly creative metaphors for language learning

(02:13 – 03:11)

Linda Fisher: Learners’ responses were fascinatingly complex and ambivalent. On the one hand, language learning was compared with ‘wrestling a bear because it’s very hard,’, ‘solving a Sudoku, because there are tiny details that unravel the whole thing,’ or ‘trying to ice skate, because I keep falling over and can’t get the hang of it.’ Or language learning was like ‘a swan – nice looking but difficult and it can bite!’ On the other hand, students told us that learning languages was like ‘using social media, because it lets you talk to people you wouldn't usually know,’ and was like ‘eating steak – it’s tough and hard, but brings rich rewards,’ or ‘it’s like a taco – you can do a lot of things with it.’ And one of our favourites, ‘language learning is like a horse, because it’s useful and can carry you through life!’

(03:12 – 03:35)

Rajinder Dudrah: So, languages ARE important to students, but they're also seen as difficult.

Do we then need to change the way we teach languages in schools? Could there be a way to give students more confidence in their language skills? Heike Krüsemann and Suzanne Graham now tell you about a programme they've been running with students learning French and German in schools across the UK.

(03:36 – 04:01)

Heike Krüsemann: We decided to focus on the role of creativity in language learning. We wanted to find out whether using creative teaching approaches could make pupils more motivated to study languages and lead to better results. We were also looking at the materials being used. Could creative teaching resources also affect how motivated the students are and how well they do in their exams and assessments? 

(04:01 – 04:53)

Suzanne Graham: We worked with approximately 600 French and German learners in year 9 and, of course, their teachers, from 16 secondary schools across England. Classes read either poems or newspaper articles on topics chosen to prompt a response from learners, for example: love, death or war. They then experienced, in turn, two different teaching approaches in their lessons, a creative or a functional approach. The creative teaching approach involved activities that asked learners to respond imaginatively and emotionally to the texts and to really try to empathise with the writer’s message; to see things through someone else’s eyes; to develop a personal connection. In the functional approach, by contrast, they focused on learning grammar and vocabulary and gaining factual information from the texts.

(04:54 – 05:08)

Heike Krüsemann: One of the authentic poems we used in language lessons was by German/Arabic writer Adel Karasholi. Here’s Julia Hofweber reading Karasholi’s poem ‘Seiltanz’, or, in English, ‘Tightrope Walking’.

(05:09 – 06:24)

Julia Hofweber reads an extract from Adel Karasholi's poem 'Seiltanz' in German and English.

(05:53 — 06:00)

Heike Krüsemann: Suzanne explains how the poem treats the complex issues of migration and identity and why we used the poem in the project:

(06:00 – 06:18)

Suzanne Graham: It’s a great poem to read with language learners in the UK. It’s simple but really gets across the complexity of cultural identity and feeling at home in two different cultures, through the image of tightrope walking, or ‘tightrope dancing’ as it’s expressed in German. Learners in our project were able to respond imaginatively and with empathy to it, seeing things from someone else’s perspective.

(06:18 – 06:34)

Rajinder Dudrah: Working with this kind of material is all very well, but did it affect the students’ performance – did it change what they thought about learning languages? Here’s Suzanne Graham again, to explain some of the findings of their research.

(06:34 – 07:40)

Suzanne Graham: 

Overall, there were very large gains in vocabulary size for learners of French. Those who were taught using the creative approach made the greatest improvement, and the words contained in the texts themselves were learnt best by those who experienced the creative approach with poems. But gains were more modest for learners of German.

General creativity increased significantly over the year among learners who studied the French poems, which is an important finding. While bilingualism has been associated with greater creativity, very few previous studies have explored whether learning a language at school also promotes creativity. So it's great to have evidence that it can do.

It's important to bear in mind, however, that one size doesn't fit all. While some learners' writing improved the most from the creative approach, the exact opposite was true for others. And while learners of French found the creative approach most helpful and enjoyable, for learners of German, the functional approach was preferred.

(07:40 – 07:50)

Heike Krüsemann: And how did the intervention resonate with teachers and students? Here, in our participants’ own words, is some of the feedback we got from our language teachers.

(07:50 – 08:39)

Teacher 1: It’s been great. It’s been really valuable. I think it will make me more willing to use literature in language lessons. One of the comments I got was, ‘Sir, this is like an English lesson — except in German’, and I think they quite liked that, the fact that we were asking them to analyse poetry and use of language and rhyming couplets and things like that, and some of them really impressed me with some of their insight. I think we get guilty sometimes of not challenging them, not doing stretching materials with them.  And because we think they’re going to find it too hard because they’re going to switch off and so on. But they did rise to it quite well and whenever I said right we’re going to do our literature thing it was never a sort of ‘oh no,’ it was always like ‘Oh, ok!’

(08:39 – 09:10)
Teacher 2: I really enjoyed doing it – it was interesting and useful. I had a real range of abilities and interests in the class and some of them are never going to be linguists or have any intention of carrying on with the language, so for them to see language in a different context. The French poem ‘Oradour’, they found that very moving, a lot of them are interested in history or geography. They enjoyed the content even if they found the language challenging. They liked that it was different and in the real world. They were engaged more so than in normal lessons, especially the less motivated learners were more engaged.

(09:10 – 09:46)

Teacher 3: I think teaching like this is the way forward. I’m looking forward to sharing this with colleagues. I’ve enjoyed it and the pupils enjoyed it. I think they found it hard when they had to write things but this will get better over the years. Nobody signed out of it, they all signed up to it. Some were weaker than others, but if they had an open mind they’d get more out of it. They realised they can understand poetry, and they gained confidence in understanding longer texts not from the textbook. It was approaching language in a different way – they realised it’s a real thing out there, not from a textbook.”

(09:46 – 10:29)

Teacher 4: Well, kids say to me ‘Why do we learn languages?’ Because of Brexit type things I battle against this all the time. That’s why I think it’s really important for them. In year 9, they do all this baby stuff when they’re learning languages. So this is an ideal way really of making it more grown up. So I’m going to think about rejigging everything for next year. It’s encouraged me to move away from the textbook. The one about the hurricane that went down well because they were doing it in geography at the time, so that was good because it was very topical obviously – they did enjoy it. It was something different for them, it was more grown up than what they were doing. They do this sort of stuff in English and other subjects, so I suppose why not in French?

(10:29 – 11:11)

Heike Krüsemann: So our teachers speak highly of this new approach to language learning, but what do the students think?

Student 1: It was more difficult than what we normally do, but it was nice because it was a bit challenging!

Student 2: I can be quite creative but sometimes in languages I do it quite simple as I want to get the grammar right.

Student 3: It was hard as didn’t know the words in French. It was interesting to say how you feel in French rather than just describing things. It was nice to have a different way to learn grammar and vocab. What I liked was talking about how I feel – it’s more engaging.

(11:04 – 11:40)

Heike Krüsemann: There you have it – there are no easy answers to the language learning crisis, and clearly, students are individuals, and no single approach will suit every learner equally. What gives us hope was that through our study we met so many enthusiastic language teachers and pupils willing to engage with languages in a positive and productive way. We witnessed first-hand how learning a language in the classroom allows young people to see someone else’s point of view, how it enables them to have a sense of achievement, and a personal connection with what they are studying.

(11:40 – 11:58)

Rajinder Dudrah: Powerful stuff, at a time where some say language learning is more important than ever for the UK. Now it’s up to the rest of us, to do whatever we can to create an environment in our schools where languages, and those who study them, can flourish.

(12:01 – 12:58)

Thanks for listening to our LinguaMania podcast. The series is produced by Creative Multilingualism, a research programme led by the University of Oxford and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Our aim is to make languages more visible, valued and vibrant!

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, have a listen to the rest of the series. And you can find out more about Creative Multilingualism at or follow us on Twitter @creativelangs and you’ll find all this information on our website.


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