Different class: How a new online approach aims to revolutionise language learning

As the number of pupils studying a foreign language falls, Virginia Matthews reports on the innovative ideas that are reversing this trend

Kicking a football about and discovering the joys of augmentative suffixes might not sound like obvious bed-fellows, but making languages relevant to contemporary life is all part of the game at Bradford City Football Club. It has teamed up with a local boys' comprehensive school to improve Spanish learning among both players and pupils with the hope of challenging the linguistic insularity common to many people in the UK.

"Our interest in Spanish dates back to our signing of the Chilean player Billy Topp, and our desire to make him feel at home with us here at the club," says Bradford's director of operations, Dave Baldwin. "Since then, five or six of our squad have voluntarily gone back to the classroom so they can speak to other players and understand more about Spanish culture and, in turn, we have identified young supporters, ball boys and even potential players at one of our local schools. Whether they want a career in sport or in business, the pupils at St Bede's in Bradford now understand that languages are a really important leg up."

Five years since secondary school pupils were allowed to drop languages after the age of 14, the number of young people taking a modern foreign language at GCSE has slumped. The Government currently has no plans to make languages a compulsory subject again, preferring instead to make them available to all primary schoolchildren. But there are new initiatives afoot to encourage secondary school pupils to learn foreign languages.

The Open School for Languages (provisionally called MYLO), a £5.4m online learning project, is one of the main initiatives being unveiled next year to support teenagers learning a key language. Aimed at harnessing the best of new technology and the interest that most young people have in online as well as face-to-face learning, the open school is designed to provide 11 to 16-year-olds with a new range of online materials relevant to their world, as well as new resources for teachers.

The scheme will begin with French, German, Spanish and Mandarin, but more languages will be added if initial results are positive. The first modules will focus on the basics and preliminary skills for Key Stage 3, while the later modules will be for GCSE students.

Key partners in the project, which is being developed by Lightbox Education, include Cambridge University Language Centre, which is responsible for developing the e-learning content and teacher support materials, and Cilt, the National Centre for Languages.

Kathryn Board is the chief executive at Cilt, the National Centre for Languages, which is working to motivate young people through initiatives such as the annual Language and Film Talent Awards (Laftas). She says the removal of foreign languages as a compulsory element of education for children older than 14 puts British youngsters at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to carving out international careers. But her message is more about using language-learning to boost employability, literacy and reading skills than attempting to push school-leavers into specialised languages-based careers.

"What we are saying to pupils and their parents is you don't need to be fixed on a career as a translator or interpreter to find having some level of language skill a competitive advantage. Even though the EU, for example, is crying out for language graduates in Brussels and has a load of interesting vacancies to fill.

"Whether you are sufficiently fluent to have a degree or an A-level in a language, or have simply followed a Key Stage 3 or GCSE language course and enjoyed at least some elements of it, we want to celebrate the fact that people understand a bit more about their world, even if their grammar and pronunciation isn't perfect," she says.

"Studying a language as a teenager not only boosts your ability to use your own language properly, but also gives you a marked advantage if you need to learn German, or even Mandarin, much later on in life," she adds.

While our sometimes smug attitude to foreign languages rests on the belief that the rest of the world speaks English, this is no longer the case, according to Cilt.

In 2000, 51 per cent of internet use was in English, but this figure has now dropped in favour of Chinese and Arabic. While English remains a key language of business for the present, it is quite possible that Mandarin will overtake it.

"Less than 7 per cent of the world speaks English as a first language and 75 per cent of the world's population don't speak any English at all," says Board, "so to assume that our mother tongue is sufficient to get by in most circumstances simply isn't true any more."

If, at a time of increased globalisation, being able to offer at least a smattering of someone else's language puts you ahead of the game in all sorts of different walks of life, then in terms of popularity, languages are at an all-time low.

To Mike Kelly, professor of French at Southampton University and speaker of six different languages, the removal of compulsory education in languages is only one part of the problem. A significant part of the reluctance to learn languages to GCSE level and beyond, he argues, is the entrenched way in which they are often taught in schools. "For the 14 to 16 age group, languages come under the heading of boring and difficult, and can be a particular challenge for boys of that age who feel self-conscious when they are asked to attempt a foreign accent."

"At a time when other subjects such as English, geography and science are tackling the meaning of life and the universe, the simplistic way in which languages are often taught – via topics such as My Hobbies and My Family and the like – make it very difficult for teenagers to use another language to express the things they care passionately about at that age."

But with a new approach to teaching languages at secondary school now on the starting blocks, Kelly hopes that the anti-language culture among many young people will begin to change.

"Language teaching has been far too prescriptive and inflexible in the past and that is, we hope, being addressed by programmes such as the open school," he says.

"By giving teachers more room to come up with topics and methods that reflect what our teenagers are all about today, rather than what they were about several decades ago, we are hoping that far more students will decide that learning a language is relevant and interesting right up to sixth form and beyond."

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