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Not everyone speaks English.

With the dwindling number of modern languages students at GCSE and A Level, the government is panicking about the impact this may have on students’ skill sets. The concern is that languages are beginning to be viewed as a subsidiary skill, of less importance than other core subjects. This is worrying given how valuable they are in bolstering a range of core skills, from written and verbal communication to cultural and historical awareness, and actively draw on many others subjects for content and context. After all, the value of speaking French is not confined to a French class, just as being numerate is not confined to Maths. So what can be done to encourage language learning in schools?

Michael Gove suggests that the way to get around this is to make language learning compulsory at primary school, in the hope that developing an interest and basic capabilities at a young age will lead to more uptake later on. That’s fine, but is it really tackling the issue? Shouldn’t we be focusing more on working out how to improve the way in which we currently teach the subject? With the job market growing ever more competitive, language learning, like all subjects need to provide students with real, employable skills and concrete opportunities.

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Learning with purpose and context

At Enabling Enterprise, we believe in helping students see the significance of their studies in a real life context and encourage them to learn by doing. Modern languages need relevance. It’s not just about cramming the vocabulary needed to pass a test or learning declension tables by rote; it’s about learning how languages are used in the ‘real world’ and can give young people valuable insight into other cultural mindsets. The fundamental benefits of learning a modern language are clear – it enables communication with worlds otherwise not open to us, builds our appreciation of other cultures, enriches academic skills and improves cognitive development. But often overlooked and just as important are the core transferable skills it builds, including confidence and resilience – making oneself understood in a foreign language isn’t always plain sailing and perseverance is built up through every attempt. So MFL at school must also enable students to practise using their languages in a variety of real life situations that reflect their use outside of academic work.

For young people to impress international employers, we need to teach languages in a practical way which allows them to build a real basis for fluency. This goal may seem obvious, but in reality students who study languages often leave school without either the ability to communicate effectively or a strong understanding of their wider application. In my own experience, having loved languages at school I decided to give Russian a go at university, taking it up from scratch and expecting to come out able to speak it fluently in a business context. After a couple of years’ cramming vocab from classic literature, it became clear this wasn’t quite on the cards; we knew the word ‘furazhka’ (a special type of peaked cap) and not the phrase ‘nice to meet you’. As it turns out, peaked caps aren’t that relevant, and if I’d known I was signing up to be a Soviet hat expert, I might have thought twice.

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And preparation for real life

For students, managing a project of their own which utilises their languages (involving research, planning, promotion and implementation) is extremely valuable. At Enabling Enterprise, these are precisely the experiences we aim to provide. Like the group of Year 9 girls at a school in Hackney who took part in a French Enterprise Club. Set up as an after-school club, the programme gave students the chance to develop business skills and commercial experience whilst using French in a practical and relevant way. Students worked in teams to launch their own businesses, receiving expert help from entrepreneurs through a range of workshops. They also visited top London businesses, including international investment bank Societe Generale, where they developed their ideas and interviewed professionals from the company, finding out what it takes to work for a global business.

The benefits of these trips were evident. The curriculum needs to ensure that students are given the chance to apply what they learn in the classroom to the world of work. The key is embedding enterprising learning into modern language lessons. So students could host cultural events in their school community, selling tickets to raise money for a foreign aid charity, or offer ‘taster’ language sessions to students in younger years, developing not only their own language skills but also organisational, interpersonal and leadership qualities. People learn best when given space to generate ideas themselves and take ownership of their own projects. If we link languages to enterprise and teach students to think innovatively about how to apply these skills to exciting projects outside of the classroom, perhaps this would boost the number of young people wishing to study them. Without relevance languages are just an elaborate code we need to memorise to pass exams. Make them relevant and they give us access to fascinating worlds outside of our own.

The photograph shows Enabling Enterprise students on a visit to Societe Generale to the role of learning languages.

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