“How to save Modern Foreign Languages?” - Al McConville in TES

Posted on 06th January 2017
In an article for TES, Alistair McConville argues that if it is to be revived, then we must do more than plead for its usefulness, and instead stress its value for greater global understanding and collaboration.
Opinion amongst students on this subject is divided. For some, the ability to access another language opens exciting horizons, whilst for others, the ‘foreign-languages-as-punishment’ narrative seems all too plausible. There is a justified perception, both amongst students, teachers and guardians of a school’s performance statistics, that it is disproportionately hard to achieve good grades in GCSE and A Level languages. 
So why bother? It is easy to make the case for English, Science and Maths in terms of utility: without these, young people are likely to be disadvantaged in terms of a really wide range of life opportunities. And how important is it to learn foreign languages, asks Al, in an age when Google can translate chunks of text in a flash, and when much of the rest of the word is decent enough to learn our mother tongue?

There is, he proposes, a basic misunderstanding at the heart of such a ‘pragmatic’ rejection of language learning. Rather than there being no ‘use’ for English speakers in broadening their linguistic base, the cost of the UK’s failures in this area is estimated at close to £50 billion. Well versed in these economic arguments, government is taking steps to reinvigorate language learning. Resourcing challenges are considerable, though, and a short-fall of teachers mean that any reversal of the downward trend will be gradual, if it can be achieved at all.

Perhaps, suggests Al, part of the solution lies in presenting language learning, and indeed education more generally, in more inspiring terms than the usual ‘economic benefit’ narrative. In the wake of the EU referendum, he asks what the demonstrated preference for disengagement says about the national attitude to ‘the foreign’. He says: “It is clear that young people were the least eager to withdraw from Europe. We should make the argument to them that multilingualism is a symbolic, as well as a pragmatic, way of sustaining their desire to remain European, indeed global citizens, and defy the dark spectre of right-wing nationalism that haunts so many democratic countries today. This is a deeply political and moral issue, and is bound up with the future of their world.” 

The full article can be read here (a TES subscription may be required).

Al McConville Is Deputy Head, Academic at Bedales School. He is a regular contributor to the TES and his articles can be read here.