Bringing language learning to life

Despite gloomy figures, new initiatives can ignite students' interest in languages
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The reduced interest among students of all abilities in languages reported in The Independent recently cannot and must not be ignored. UK and overseas businesses continue to assert the value of language skills and cultural knowledge in particular during these challenging times.

The CBI Education and Skills Survey 2009 highlighted the value of employees with languages, 74 per cent of businesses needing conversational skills to help build relationships. HSBC in late 2008 found that the language barrier was a problem for most UK businesses, alongside an understanding of local cultural etiquette (Business without Boundaries, a survey of 5,300 businesses). Increasingly the brightest, most multilingual overseas graduates have been cherry-picked from institutions both in the UK and abroad by UK-based multinationals that recognise the need for confident international communicators, but are struggling to find this skillset in UK-born candidates.

In spite of the gloomy figures (only 75 per cent of the highest achieving students taking a language at GCSE in 2008 compared to 94 per cent in 2004), Cambridge Assessment’s report does acknowledge initiatives planned and under way which can make a difference by sparking new interest in language learning: for example, by 2010 under the National Languages Strategy, all primary school students at Key Stage 2 will be entitled to learn a foreign language. Indeed 92 percent of primary schools already give students this opportunity, according to a recent report by the National Foundation for Educational Research, and from 2011 it will be compulsory for primary schools to teach languages.

There are more causes for optimism: since 2006, regional consortia of universities have been formed under the HEFCE and DCSF-funded "Routes into Languages" programme to encourage students to continue with their language learning. Alongside this, the "Try life in another language" campaign led by Government is opening young people’s eyes and ears to languages through music, dance and film. A key recommendation of the 2007 Dearing Review, the Open School for Languages is a £6 million project which will by 2010 create an online platform to encourage students to learn languages in their own time.

The campaigns and initiatives rightly promise much and it is our responsibility not to disappoint. Having been asked by Government to develop a new qualification which will bring language learning to life in schools and colleges, as a Diploma Development Partnership we have spoken to students, teachers and stakeholders to find out what would work. Learners are bored by the content of their languages lessons and want to be able to talk about interesting topics with young native speakers; they want to have more control over what they learn; and they are often dropping languages not because they don’t like them, but because they liked something else better.

Students simply need more choice and flexibility in their language learning. Every young person has different ambitions and aspirations, different skills and aptitudes, a different background and different interests. We need a curriculum that recognises this. September 2008 saw the introduction of a range of reforms to 14-19 education, including the Diploma, a new qualification which blends practical and theoretical learning. The first Diplomas have been taught across England since September and by 2013 there will be 17 Diploma subjects available to all young people, including from 2011 the Diploma in Languages and International Communication. The Diploma has been designed to be flexible, so regardless of the subject chosen, students have the option of learning a language within or alongside the qualification - which I know will go down well with the many businesspeople I know from across those industries where languages are in demand.

In my role as Chair of the Diploma in Languages and International Communication, I am leading on a project which is an even bigger opportunity to bring language learning to life. From September 2011, students in England will learn about how language is formed and the different languages spoken at home and abroad. They will learn how to interact with people from other cultural backgrounds. They’ll discover a globalised world where international communication skills are a vital asset in work and in life. They’ll learn how to learn a new language. They’ll understand how and why different types of businesses need people who can operate across borders and cultures. Most importantly they’ll discuss and explore, in another language, topics which interest them and are relevant to their future.

New and established initiatives are helping young people to see the point of languages, and to get an early taster. With the introduction last year of the new Diplomas, and our own Diploma in Languages and International Communication being taught alongside GCSEs and A Levels from 2011, students aged 14 to 19 of all abilities will soon be able to choose from a spectrum of language learning options to suit their interests and ambitions. The economic recession may or may not have turned a corner, but everything points to a revival in language learning in the coming years - and that will do UK plc a power of good.

Dr Terry Lamb is Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Sheffield and the Chair of the Diploma in Languages and International Communication, a new qualification whose development is being led by GoSkills in partnership with CILT, the National Centre for Languages. Visit for more information.