'Learning a language can deliver joy, self-fulfilment and sense of achievement', says a Sheffield teacher

If anything fills me full of dread when I’m doing cover in Sheffield schools, it’s arriving in reception to discover I’ve got a full day as a languages teacher, writes our Secret Teacher.

Friday, 10th January 2020, 10:34 am
Updated Thursday, 30th January 2020, 6:47 pm
Learning another language

As a supply teacher, I can stomach most things that are away from my comfort zone of an English department – technology, geography, art, maths and even P.E.

But, put me into a class where I’m expected to teach French or Spanish and I feel way out of my depth.

There are several reasons for this, the most obvious being that I cannot remember much about my own languages lessons at school and so struggle to do anything in French beyond saying I’d like to order a milky brew or announce that I have a headache.

The other factor that builds up my anxiety of teaching a modern foreign languages class is that, in my experience, these are the lessons which I feel children on the whole take least seriously.

Trying to discover the reasons for this is certainly a lot harder than it might seem, but anecdotally I’m often asked questions by the kids along the lines of ‘when are we going to need this?’ and ‘what’s the point if everybody speaks English?’

There may even be a Brexit factor contributing to the perception that learning a foreign language is not as important as some of the other skills that are learnt at school.

Whatever the reasons, it’s heart-breaking to see and I know that the picture in language departments around the city is a mixed one with some thriving and some struggling to recruit.

Taking a language at GCSE has been encouraged by the government by making it part of the Ebacc that schools are judged on. Some schools disregard this measurement of success while others positively encourage young people to learn a language.

There have been instances when kids in Year 9 have been ‘forced’ to take a language in order to bump up the Ebacc numbers, but this policy has been quickly reversed in some cases because it created a breakdown of the behaviour in Year 10 and Year 111, and there we come back to the factor about apathy towards learning another language.

This week the British Council released a report which suggests learning a language is a particular turn-off for teenage boys. It said that while 50 per cent of girls take a language at GCSE, the number of boys taking one has dropped to 38 per cent.

In many subjects, the biggest factor differentiating between success and failure is the student’s background, with disadvantaged children struggling compared to those from affluent families.

When it comes to languages, though, the biggest factor is actually this gender divide – there is apparently a massive issue when it comes to recruiting boys to take a language and, once they do, getting them to achieve their potential in it.

If I had a magic solution of how to fix this trend, encourage more boys to take languages and help them to succeed, then I would be in demand at very high levels of education – despite me only being skilled in listing my ailments in French.

It is, though, a telling time for the country when tomorrow night at 11pm some people will be celebrating the cutting of ties from the rest of the European Union and teachers holding GCSE options events will be struggling to get boys to sign up for a language.

Personally, I don’t think the country is in a very healthy position when we stop looking outward at how we can integrate with the rest of the continent and instead adopt a position that’s aloof and metaphorically sneering at our closest neighbours.

As hard as I find covering lessons in language departments, I will continue to deliver them with all the passion I can muster, to get our young people more engaged in foreign languages and realising how important they can be to us for our future.

Learning a language can deliver joy, self-fulfilment and a sense of achievement. We should be helping the younger generation to make the most of opportunities.