Myths and Reality-Foreign Languages skills for the 21st century?

7 February, 2014

mfl - skills for the 21st C

I never really liked to describe the subject I teach as MFL. Modern? If you have to state something is modern, doesn’t it somehow make it sound old-fashioned? Foreign? The word never conjured up anything warm and accepting to me…

Some people will then go on to tell me that MFL is a neat way to distinguish languages like French or Spanish from Community Languages. Does this mean that French is not a community language in London despite quite a large French community living there? Is this a polite but obvious way to discriminate between languages? After the Olympics and London being described as one of the most multilingual cities in the world, I had really hoped for this distinction to disappear.

Languages are languages, aren’t they?

If you are bilingual or multilingual, you have been given a special gift that needs to be celebrated. So why are so many school children hiding the fact they may be using a different language at home?

The national debate about languages seems to be evolving in the UK and this is all good news.

There is still a fair amount of myths circulating in and out of schools about how languages may not be “suitable” for all children and even a possible threat to the development of their language skills in English. Funnily enough, the vast majority of conversations I have had about this were with people who still consider that being monolingual is the norm. The thing is, there are now more multilingual people in the world and being monolingual is becoming more and more an exception to the norm.

Some children will find learning a language easier than others but the truth is that proficiency in any language cannot be easily attained. It requires time, effort, resilience and equal opportunity of access as it is still optional in many schools. In addition, the examination system does not serve languages particularly well. It provides pupils with limited options-why can’t we study French for Food Studies at GCSE?-and does not always give pupils a positive recognition of their skills.

There is indeed a language skills deficit in the UK at even the most basic level, probably the one some would say is not “worth bothering about”, justifying the narrow choice of language qualifications available, but is no skills at all better than some skills although limited? Clearly not. It would be like refusing to enter a race at school just for knowing that we could not possibly end up in the top 3. So what about the other benefits of taking part?

Language learning needs to be embraced as an activity that will benefit all, in the same way as all children benefit from core PE.

Is language learning a 21st century skill?

Usually the discussions gravitate around the role of technology and core skills like literacy, numeracy and oracy, with no sign of language learning being included in the list. I find this odd as Language learning skills are part of literacy core skills-they also support the development of mother tongue literacy by allowing comparisons.

Recently, the debate about languages for all has been hijacked by the “which language” debate. Do not allow yourself to get distracted-we have a language deficit in the UK and I am not sure whether stating publicly that some languages are more useful than other is helpful at all.

We need more languages taught by qualified specialists in schools. If language skills are taught well, they are transferable so the “which language” discussion becomes redundant as we cannot predict accurately what will be of use by the time our current school children enter the job market.

Language teachers should also be allowed to bring languages alive and tap into youth culture, which they cannot always do in the curriculum time they are given-one of the smallest in Europe. Languages, just like technology are in constant evolution. Using ICT and social media can provide very real opportunities to communicate quickly and effectively with different language speakers about all sorts of common interests.

In schools, the question should not be whether all children should learn languages or which one but how language teachers can work with all areas of the curriculum to make language-learning an integrated literacy-enhancing experience.

Isabelle Jones is a Head of Languages at Alderley Edge School for Girls in East Cheshire and a French & Spanish specialist with experience of secondary and primary teaching.  Her areas of interest includes ICT, EAL and Thinking Skills. She enjoys sharing her ideas and resources using twitter as @icpjones. She also regularly blogs at and speaks at conferences across the UK.



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