The Future of Language Teaching in the UK

As teachers and kids activity providers, I’m sure we can agree that all children deserve the best opportunities in this complex and divided world. We have built our careers and businesses on the basis that kids need access to a broad range of activities, which schools and early years settings alone cannot provide. We could go as far as to say that children need a broad and varied curriculum even more today than they did before COVID-19 pulled the rug out from under our feet, just a few short months ago. 

For all teachers, the road ahead is pretty uncertain. However, as a languages teacher, I’m no stranger to having to fight my corner for my beloved subject. The unfortunate misconception that ‘English is enough’ made my choice to become a languages teacher a pretty tough gig at times; but with every battle won, I emerge stronger and more resolute in my mission to get even more kids and families into languages.

For disillusioned linguists who know this story only too well, take heart. The turbulent history of language learning in the UK has provided an excellent training ground for what may be our toughest battle yet. One I believe we are perfectly positioned to win. We just need to be prepared, with a willingness to leverage and promote the following 2 very timely reasons why languages are now a necessity – not just a ‘nice to have’:

 

  1. Ofsted wants to see evidence of ‘cultural capital’ in early years and primary settings

As linguists, we know that when we teach children languages, we allow them to think openly, to embrace other cultures and to be part of a global community. In a society which still struggles with intercultural understanding and racial inequality, we simply can’t afford to let a subject like languages diminish any further. 

‘Cultural capital’, the term that relates to how much intercultural understanding we impart in our classes as teachers, is set to be a key focus in 2021 and beyond. Few subjects can rival languages when it comes to rich ‘cultural capital content’. As a parent of 3 children under 8, I can vouch for how their early exposure to languages with a strong cultural emphasis has made them open, tolerant and confident to try and communicate in other languages; whether at home or abroad. 

According to the Cultural Learning Alliance, teaching which is rich in cultural capital will help children “fuel solutions to society’s problems, build our creative industries and help UK plc to survive the turmoil of Brexit. We want definitions of cultural capital to celebrate and embrace the different backgrounds, heritage, language and traditions of all the children living in this country.We need to find ways to educate  pre- and primary school leaders that teaching languages helps them to tick this very important box – it teaches children that there is more than one way to live, there is more than one ‘right’, and there is more than one ‘normal’. 

 

 

  1. An uncertain world: Brexit + COVID-19 = ?

As a nation, we have chosen a new path outside of the EU; our little ones blissfully unaware of what this means for them. The impact of this is still unknown. Add to this the immeasurable impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and we can no longer pretend that English will always be enough.  Quite simply, putting your child’s eggs in one basket in terms of language skills is limiting. Add another language, and you open a heck of a lot more doors for your child. The current climate calls for an even greater focus on the social, economic, and financial mobility that languages can offer families and their little ones. Again, it’s up to us to shout this message from the rooftops.

Why, as a nation, have we been so complacent when it comes to languages?

Let’s start by looking at the ever-changing landscape of language provision in UK schools.  Over the last 20 years, this has been controversial at best.

 

The decision the government took in 2004 to make languages non-compulsory from year 10 and beyond was an event I will never forget. I was a young and idealistic newly-qualified teacher of French and Spanish at the time, having just started out in my career, and ready to change the world!

 

The impact was devastating – most schools saw their languages’ uptake drop from the average 30-pupil classroom to 10 or less. Language teachers were facing uncertainty as apathetic teens had the perfect excuse to jack it in.  The government’s campaign to raise the profile of ‘core’ subjects, such as maths and science, had already left modern languages in the balance, and this was way before the coronavirus pandemic paved the way for even narrower ‘catch-up’ curriculums. 

 

At primary level, the story is no better. After a decade-long debate, 2014 saw the government finally commit to making language learning a statutory part of the KS2 curriculum. This came as great news to passionate MFL teachers across the UK who had been disillusioned by the increasing marginalisation of their subject. Unfortunately, the long and tedious wait for statutory reform led to many schools losing their momentum, and the delivery of primary MFL still today is often lacking in drive and consistency. 

 

The result? We are now seeing record-low numbers of students opting for second language studies at GCSE level and beyond. With popular universities such as Hull and Nottingham Trent closing their Languages departments, it is clear that this is just the tip of the iceberg. These alarming numbers can’t be ignored if we still hope to produce well-rounded individuals with the skills to thrive in an ever-changing, post-Brexit, post-pandemic global marketplace.

Where does this leave us, as children’s activity providers with language skills?

Dispensable and doomed? Far from it. Now, more than ever, families need us to get their kids into language learning as early as possible. However – we need to be smart. With many schools adding to the pressure cooker with narrowly focused ‘catch up curriculums,’ many parents are jumping on this bandwagon. But for every parent who continues to use numeracy & literacy benchmarking as a yardstick for their child’s development, there will be 10 who will have learnt, thanks to this crisis, that there is more to life than number crunching, data and target-setting. 

 

It’s our job as linguists to find, help and educate these parents about the endless benefits of learning a second language. Today, we have a unique opportunity to shine a spotlight on where things have gone wrong with languages in the UK in the past; what could happen if we let things slide further; and more importantly, what we can do about it.  

 

This is where the CAP sector comes in. As activity providers who are not shackled by the constraints of a government agenda or Ofsted, we are in a unique position to be able to plug the languages gap. It’s our job to help parents see that adding a language into their child’s weekly schedule is essential if they want to future-proof their kids. Together, by teaching the younger years at a time when their little brains are at their most receptive, we are contributing to the social, emotional, cultural and economic recovery of our society. By using our precious language skills, we are doing something truly special, something so very needed: we are ‘reseeding’ the linguistic skill gap and rebooting language learning in the UK from the ground up. If we do this right, who knows how much brighter the future of languages could be in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time?

 

 

What can I do to help my kids’ language classes bounce back?

So, for language activity providers like you and me, how does this all play out in practical terms? For many of us, it may feel like we are more or less having to start building our businesses again from scratch. Whether you’re new to the industry, or a veteran with many years’ experience of running your language class business, this is a daunting prospect. As humans, we like to be in control and to have an element of predictability and certainty about things, especially when we’re talking about our livelihoods. We find it hard when things change from one year to the next, never mind week to week! But here we are, being carried by the tide of the coronavirus pandemic; not knowing where the next wave will land us. We are being called upon to be more flexible, resourceful and resilient than ever before – and roll with the punches as they come our way.

 

But as linguists, we do have something on our side; a small but mighty superpower that not everyone possesses. We are pretty flexible, resourceful and resilient people, as it happens! Many of us have thrown ourselves willingly into the unknown before now, maybe even multiple times; and we have the amazing memories, as well as the scars to prove it. We’ve left the UK aged 20 and built new lives for ourselves in foreign countries. We’ve experienced brain ache after battling with trying to understand and be understood for weeks on end before the new language ‘clicked in’. We’ve been ridiculed for our dodgy accents while living abroad, and then laughed at on our return for our new-found love of Europop and very ‘un-British’ fashions.  In short, it takes a lot to phase a linguist. We’ve got this!

 

So what do we do now, while we wait for the ‘green light’?

The first and most important thing is to stay visible. Don’t be one of the many businesses that has faded away during this period. If you think you’ve let your online presence slide over the last few months – don’t despair. It’s time to come out of hiding and start showing up and giving value. 

1. Be consistent and persuasive in your messaging. Show up daily if you can. You don’t have to be all over every platform – just choose the one that you feel most comfortable with and where you know your ideal customer hangs out. For us, this is mainly Facebook; for you it may be Instagram. Educate your followers about the value of languages to keep their interest.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask past customers for testimonials, and share them on social media. Now isn’t the time to be shy about your past achievements; it’s time to blow your own trumpet!

3. Start a re-opening waiting list now! If you use a booking system provider, then this is a great way to build your list. Check out BilinguaSing’s Facebook post inviting customers to join our waiting list to get an idea. Services like Class4kids and ClassBiz are great, GDPR-compliant services for running class bookings and waiting lists.

4. Remember, you don’t need to know all the answers in order to show up, build a customer list and give value. Just showing that you are there, you are listening out for government updates and will be ready to go once you get the green light is enough to reassure people. That way, you will be at the forefront of their minds when deciding which classes to sign up to

 

Good luck . . .  Suerte . . . Bonne chance . . . Viel Glück . . . in bocca al lupo

Remember – you are not alone; we are all in this together. As a franchisor of a growing network of language class providers, you may wonder why my philosophy is inclusive of all languages teachers across all networks, rather than just my own.

I care about your success because I care about the future of young people in the UK. My mission is your mission: to empower and inspire future generations with the gift of languages. I can’t do that alone, and there’s more than enough room for all of us. A win for you is a win for languages.

 

 

Interested in how you can use your languages to get involved in the Children’s Activity Sector? Grab the BilinguaSing franchise brochure to find out more!

 

Read the full report about the future of the Children’s Activity Sector, published by ICAP (Ellie features on P. 87)

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