English is the world’s most important language…for now.
The benefits of foreign language learning are widely known and routinely ignored. As with anything that is good for us, it requires effort, discipline and self-regulation. We know we should exercise but it’s too much like hard work. We know we should eat 5-a-day, but there are so many other things we would rather be eating. We know we should learn a language…
The ten second sell is as follows; improves memory, increases intelligence, opens doors, improves command of English, staves off Alzheimer’s, makes you worldly, improves job prospects, looks good on your CV or UCAS application.
But of course a language teacher will say that languages are important – how do you go beyond that? Threaten them with a world where you can’t go abroad and expect to hear your native tongue? Impress upon them that the average age for Alzheimer’s in bilingual people is four years later than that of monoglots?
A like or dislike of languages is based on experience of them. Language classrooms require a kind of bravery that no other subject demands. Make a mistake in your maths book, only you and the teacher know, but make a mistake speaking German and your ability is announced to the class. This bravery is particularly taxing for our socially-stereotypical shyness whereby putting on an accent makes you feel silly and making one mistake makes you feel stupid.
If students concentrate on the negatives, language learning becomes a negative experience. But if you reinforce the idea that there is a light at the end of the tunnel of imperfect subjunctives, it can be a powerful motivator. The sentence ‘learn this and you will…’ can have a glorious number of endings in MFL.
Positive experiences of languages; such as foreign holidays, family friends abroad, stories set in a certain country, the history of a certain country can draw students in and hold them there. If schools can emulate experience of the culture, motivation and engagement are sure to rise.
I can attribute the moment I decided I wanted to become a linguist to being in a train station in Barcelona. My Spanish teacher switched between Spanish and English so impressively that I decided that I wanted to do that too. It was this that kept me going through the dark days of recorded oral exams and 3 hour grammar tests.
Languages are important, we can all agree. A celebration of this importance comes via in the European Day of Languages, so why not try a few new methods to impress this importance on your class, in the hope of inspiring students for life.
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