‘Gardening in a gale’ was the great language educator Eric Hawkins’s metaphor to describe practitioners’ experience of teaching languages. Ten years later, following Brexit and the pandemic, and in the midst of a hapless policy landscape, what was a gale now feels more like a hurricane, observes Oliver Hopwood, head of modern languages at Westminster School.
Much of the adversity we face is familiar. Performance regimes come and go, but all have similar implications for practitioners: we face the daily compromise between teaching in the way which inspires and promotes genuine linguistic proficiency and preparing students for the vagaries of exams: how to spot inauthentic linguistic traps in comprehension tasks, for example.
The curriculum continues to frustrate us: the GCSE content is at best samey and uncluttered by culture, at worst alienating and downright inappropriate. Learners are often puzzled as to what they’re learning and why, and acutely aware that the exam seeks above all else to reward a mastery of ‘complex grammar structures’ which far exceeds their lexical knowledge and is hopelessly incongruous to the content they are working with.
Official advice on how to teach our subject well is, as always, in no short supply, and continues to frustrate many practitioners. The latest missive from Ofsted unhelpfully declared that exchange programmes ‘demotivate’ students. The report then offers guidance on a raft of minute curriculum details, while remaining conspicuously silent on the most crucial variable of all: timetable time. It is a simple truth that pupils cannot learn a language without sufficient time. Reduce the time available, and the standard attained will be lower. This is a bullet that successive administrations have preferred to dodge.
Readers will be familiar with claims of severe grading and favouring of STEM subjects by policymakers and school leaders. There may be some validity in these matters, but we cannot allow these external factors to distract us from the urgent need to address matters within our own subject: we must dramatically enhance the visceral appeal of languages, in competition with other subjects, both STEM and humanities, in the marketplace at 14+, 16+ and 18+.
Recent events have not helped. Students are unsure of Britain’s relationship with European partners who speak many of the languages we teach; for two years, their trips abroad have been cancelled; online teaching, valiant though it was, was no replacement for the vitality of the modern languages classroom; and recruiting colleagues from overseas is immeasurably more difficult than it was and should be. This spring teachers were grappling with a hastily assembled suite of reform proposals that will, if implemented, not only further reduce standards but diminish language learning to the mere exemplification of fetishised grammatical structures, with minimal vocabulary and cultural content of precisely nil.
Yet herein lies our opportunity. There is lively consensus supporting the case for fundamental, creative renewal across the languages sector. As linguists it is within our nature to look curiously overseas at how other nations, including anglophone nations, are more successful in this endeavour than we. If there is indeed a void in the strategic vision for languages in England, then we should step into it, quickly and decisively. In Threshold 1990 Van Ek and Trim remind me that language teaching is ‘a vital medium for the freer movement of people and ideas’: this seems the perfect place to start.
Oliver Hopwood is head of modern languages at Westminster School, chair of the Independent Schools’ Modern Languages Association (ISMLA) committee, and founder member of The Future of Languages, an open forum of teachers, researchers and activists advocating for the radical change in language learning in English schools.
Image: Shutterstock / Ryan DeBerardinis