Let’s speak out for languages

September 24, 2010

The annual GSCE results have once again thrown the crisis facing languages and language teaching in this country into sharp focus.  BBC radio 4 devoted a whole hour to the subject and there has been much comment in the press, notably amongst the broadsheet newspapers. 

Whilst the You and Yours programme on August 31st highlighted many of the positive benefits of language learning  both to the individual by way of personal development, and to the country as a whole  in terms of having a linguistically skilled and culturally aware workforce, there was nothing radically new about what they discussed  and it neglected to address some of the issues that have dogged language learning and which continue to have an impact on the uptake of languages principally at KS4 and beyond. 

The programme sparked a flash meeting debate amongst a number of language professionals which picked up on several of the points made in the discussion including the old chestnut of having to be able to talk about changing a car tyre for the GCSE oral.  Unfortunately there was no one on the You and Yours programme to point out that this is no longer the case with the new GCSE courses, and that the controlled speaking and writing assessments can build on the flexibility of the content free KS3 curriculum.   The issue of severe grading was also discussed and Helen Myers, chair of the London branch of ALL, was invited to go on the programme a few weeks later to talk about this. 

This week, in the build up to its AGM, the Association for Language Learning is encouraging all language professionals to have their say – so here’s mine from the perspective of the secondary sector and as a former regional  subject adviser for the secondary curriculum…

  • Languages and language skills need to be valued as a key functional skill in this country.  Whilst attitudes such as “we’re no good at languages” and “everyone speaks English” prevail we are almost fighting a losing battle.  However, if we give in we are disenfranchising and disempowering our young people in what is an increasingly global and mobile workforce.  In virtually every other country, certainly in Europe and possibly in the world, there is no debate as to whether young people should be learning languages beyond the age of 13 or 14 because it is seen as an essential skill, over and above all the intangible benefits that language learning can bring by way of opening minds, intercultural awareness, the development of personal learning and thinking skills and so on.
  • In the media this message and debate needs to move beyond the broadsheets and radio 4 to a far wider audience through those channels which attract the attention of young people and in many cases their parents as well.  After all as language teachers we spend quite a lot of our time countering stereotypes which are propounded in some of the more rabid and xenophobic headlines of the tabloid press.  Wouldn’t it be great if one of those papers suddenly started affirming the value of languages (interviews with sports or other media personalities talking about why languages are important to them) and the importance of understanding other cultures?  Whilst on the subject of the media, wouldn’t it also be great if greater use were made of subtitles rather than dubbing when interviews are broadcast on TV?
  • One of the most motivating experiences for a language learner is to encounter the language and culture at first hand.  I am fortunate enough to work in a school where we still run exchanges, but in our risk averse society we are the exception rather than the norm.  Wouldn’t it make a difference if there were a commitment from the government to cut some of the red tape and make it easier, not more difficult, to run all kinds of trips abroad? And further, when we do run trips we must also remember to get the students who have been on them to “sell” them to their peers.  This week I sat in on an assembly given by the students I accompanied on this year’s SSAT/Hanban summer camp in China.  Their  presentation in which they talked about their first hand experience of encountering  another culture and the impact that that experience had had on them was far more compelling than anything I could have done.
  • Serious consideration should be given to making languages in some way compulsory beyond KS3 (which for some pupils now ends in year 8 rather than in year 9) with greater use being made of alternative accreditations to GCSE; accreditations which may be more appropriate to many learners’ needs.  These should have wider recognition and the government should make a commitment that they will continue to attract points and count when it comes to the league tables.
  • Whilst league tables remain in place the issue of severe grading of GCSEs needs to be taken seriously so that there is parity between languages and other subject areas.  The performance indicators introduced in the wake of the Dearing report also need to be taken more seriously and senior management teams held to account if there is insufficient uptake at KS4. 
  • Until we get some of the changes outlined above our greatest battle is often, and will continue to remain, within our own establishments.  There is a worrying trend of schools moving towards a 2 year KS3 which needs to be addressed not to mention the situation in many schools where language departments are fighting for time on the curriculum, for appropriate timetabling and resources.  We need to continue to challenge curriculum managers and timetablers over allocations such as one hour a week, two lessons timetabled on the same day, one language timetabled to be followed by another, languages set against subjects which may be perceived as more popular/easier in GSCE option blocks, and other such horrors.   In order to do this we need to convince our senior management teams of the value and importance of languages beyond the league tables, perhaps by taking a lead on a whole school initiative such embedding the international dimension or  the PLTS.
  • We need to make sure that what we do at KS3 is engaging and motivating so that young people want to keep learning languages.  We must celebrate and build on their prior learning at the primary stage and take advantage of the fact that the secondary curriculum has no prescribed content so we are free to go beyond the text book and to treat it as our servant rather than our master.   There are now many schools where some exciting and innovating work is being done and I would hope to see some continued commitment from government to support ways in which this can be shared and built upon.
  • If we are stuck with curriculum models and timetabling which don’t serve us and our learners can we at least persuade senior management teams of the benefits of, for example, the use of technology such mobile phones in the classroom to engage and motivate.   I was struck on the SSAT/Hanban summer camp I attended in July by the way in which the Chinese students were constantly using electronic dictionaries on their phones/Ipods  etc to look up words when communicating with our students.  We also need  to encourage our students to download/listen to  podcasts, songs you name it in the TL or to watch videos  on their mobile devices in order to increase their exposure to the TL.   Even if they did this for just 10 minutes a day it would make a huge difference to their listening and ultimately to their speaking skills; I and some of  my KS5 students regularly use Chinesepod in this way.
  • Finally – September 26th is the European Day of Languages – Let’s celebrate all the positive things that we are able to achieve!



Learn Chinese with Chinese TV

September 17, 2010


Back in July I was fortunate enough to be invited by the school where I teach part time  to accompany a party of Year 12 students participating in the SSAT/DCSF/Hanban summer camp for UK students in China in July.  It was an amazing experience not least to see the way in which our students “bonded” with their Chinese “partners” during the nine days we spent at Changzhou Senior High school in Jiangsu Province. 

We spent a few days at the beginning and end of the trip in Beijing where we were accommodated in a 5 star hotel – 谢谢 Hanban!  Surfing through the TV options one of the evenings I came across the English channel on Chinese TV, and more specifically a programme for learning Chinese – it was all about eating snacks and  the typical delicacies of Beijing.  When I got back home I thought I’d just do a google search to check out whether there was anything available online and was pleased to discover that there are several series for learning Chinese produced by CNTV.

At the beginner’s level there is Easy Chinese, broadcast originally at the time of the Beijing Olympics and consisting mainly of short dialogues and basic phrases based on some typical tourist scenarios – shopping, booking accommodation, eating drinking, finding your way and so on.  The presenter first explains the vocabulary and then finds an unsuspecting tourist (!) to teach the phrases to.  The key phrases are given on the webpage for each individual video in characters, English and, in most cases, Pinyin.   Each video is very short (mainly less than five minutes) so could be useful in the classroom.  However, there is possibly a bit too much English spoken in it so it is probably better suited to the individual learner, either wanting to reinforce something he/she has learnt or to learn some new vocabulary.

Also at this level is Growing up with Chinese which is aimed at teenage beginners.   To date there are 9 episodes available online which cover things such as greetings, name, nationality, family, age, saying thank you etc.  The video content is available either streamed or can be downloaded with Realplayer and there is also a downloadable transcript of the key dialogues in characters, pinyin and English.  Each episode has a full explanation of the language content and new sentence patterns along with information on things of cultural significance.  Lesson 5 on Simple enquiries for example has quite a lot on the significance of the colours yellow and red in Chinese culture.

Finally, at beginners’ level  there are also short 5 minute  audio episodes from CRI chinese Studio.  The transcript is on the page for each episode (of which there are 190+ to date).  Unfortunately these appear only to be streamed live and not downloadable as a podcast – a pity as they would be perfect for “on the go” listening and learning.

Moving on to Intermediate level there’s Communicate in Chinese which is suitable for older learners.  The early episodes cover some familiar ground such as dates, time and numbers, but later episodes move on to topics such as opinions, being a guest etc and are more challenging.  Not all of these appear to be downloadable and I’ve  experienced occasional interruptions whilst the video is buffering which is irritating –  so better for individual use rather than in class.  As with the beginners’ series there are some useful insights into cultural matters such as not losing “face” along with analysis of words and phrases.  The transcript on the web page is only in characters and in English, not Pinyin, but Pinyin does appear on the video alongside the characters for some of the vocabulary.

At Advanced level there are several series:  Happy journey across China  and Happy Chinese – daily life, both of which are all in Chinese with English subtitles.  Travel in Chinese is also reckoned to be at the same level, but is introduced in English and has more by way of explanation for the dialogues.  It was the episode on Beijing snacks that I saw on TV in the hotel in Beijing!  Sports Chinese is a similar series based round sporting events such as the Beijing Olympics.

For really advanced learners there is also Special Chinese – audio podcasts of the news in the Chinese with an English transcript, explanations of some of the vocabulary and some comprehension exercises.

In addition to the language videos and audio material there is also a video series on culture which covers such things as festivals, calligraphy, paper cutting and much else, whilst the Chopsticks series is all about how to cook typical Chinese dishes.

All in all this website has a lot of useful materials for the Chinese learner at whatever level some of which could be used in the classroom.