Changes to MFL Teaching in the UK: Let’s Get Them Young!

I spent the last five years teaching in a German High School. I learnt a lot (especially German!), which made me reflect on how Modern Foreign Language (MFL) teaching is being done back home in the UK. In addition to this, I formed wonderful relationships with my students who enjoyed the different teaching ideas and methodologies that I brought with me from my UK teacher training and experience.

What is MFL? It stands for Modern Foreign Language Teaching, and is a way to teach children not only a foreign language, but teach them subjects IN that foreign language being learnt.

Some of my students decided to visit me on my return to the UK, electing to spend a term in UK High Schools. I was privileged to be asked to take on the role of guardian for one of my past students. I shall call her X (after the chromosome of course, and for data protection purposes).

I had taught X English since she was ten years old (high school starts at the age of ten, year five, in Germany). A diligent, intelligent and humble student, X excelled. Her writing improved rapidly as she kept handing me back the same homework for re-marking, having taken onboard all the feedback written on the work. I would routinely mark the same piece of coursework three or four times in her determination to get it perfect.

Despite being 14 and in Year Nine at home in Germany, she entered Year Ten for her “term abroad”. She flourished. She passed her LAMDA (London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art) speaking examinations with distinction; she was in the top set English class and scored 39/40 on her An Inspector Calls coursework and was put forward early for her Biology and French GCSE’s (General Certificate of Secondary Education)..

Chatting to X, I asked her what differences she noticed between Modern Foreign Language (MFL) teaching in Germany and the UK. Upon reflection, she told me that the standard of French and Spanish is much much lower in the UK than in Spain and Germany. (Her Spanish and German friends she made at the school agreed wholeheartedly.) I bit my tongue. I started feeling defensive - I want the UK, my adopted homeland, to be best at everything!

“Why do you think that is?” I asked the three girls as we all tucked into a Sunday lunch of pizza in the sun, enjoying a sunny day near dry stone walls and frolicking lambs. This is what they reminded me of and told me…

  • German children are often sent to bilingual kindergartens to receive a solid base in a second language as well as their mother tongue
  • By the time they are in primary school, they are already having formal lessons in that second language, and sometimes even a third!
  • At high school, their MFL lessons are more advanced and interesting than the ones they have experienced in the UK. This is because their vocabulary is more expansive (having begun learning MFL at a very early age). As a result MFL classes at home in Germany and Spain, they can have proper debates, write about issues that are important to them and engage in reading that is more sophisticated than the basic (and often boring for a 12 year old) narratives and lessons that are needed to learn a lesson from scratch.
  • In addition to this, in Spain, they use the CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) method and employ native speakers to assist in their lessons to help with correct pronunciation/grammar explanations and writing conventions.
  • The UK teacher in me screams with sentiments I'm sure you feel, too. Is there a way to actually find money to pay and employ people to help in lessons when there is not even enough money to keep the school running? Well, setting adequate budgets for education is clearly more important in Germany and Spain than in the UK. Let’s give UK politicians yet another pay rise anyway!
  • Special monetary awards are given to schools to help implementation of language learning programmes and to cover the cost of technological equipment.

I am not sure how well received bilingual kindergartens would be in the UK, but MFL in primary schools is definitely doable. Unfortunately, primary school teachers tell me that they do not feel confident delivering lessons in French, German or Spanish, when they have not studied the language themselves! I can understand this. In front of 30 savvy kids with answers for everything except the questions you ask - you want your wits about you.

This is where technology can come to help -- especially if your school cannot afford to pay a native speaking classroom assistant. Apps like mean children can learn to read and speak independently using electronic devices with the support of traditional material supplied with the application to support the electronic texts. Comprehensions are marked in app and progress reports sent to the teacher who can monitor individual students' work rate and academic success in the language - WITHOUT ever having to lift a pen or be fluent in the language being learnt. Because the material starts at basic level 1, primary school teachers will soon be learning the language themselves, and year on year become more confident in delivering MFL lessons. An inexpensive, practical and valuable solution!

Don’t allow the government to Brexit children's brains. Get kids learning a second language soon - get them young!

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