Overcoming the language barrier: Why we need more language teachers

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The Independent Online

As an island race, we might have once been forgiven for forgetting that we're living on a continent where numerous different languages are spoken. But those days are gone. I, for one, have my letters delivered by a Portuguese postman; buy coffee at the railway station from someone with a heavy Polish accent; and watch a football team where French and Spanish dominate in the dressing room.

So today's schoolchildren are growing up surrounded by examples of people making their way in another country and speaking another language, namely English. But, according to British businesses, we shouldn't just sit back and let foreigners come here and master our tongue. We should follow suit.

A recent report from the CBI, the employers' organisation, showed that around three-quarters of companies look for recruits with some foreign language skills, and are likely to demand more such expertise in the future.

But there have been mixed messages coming out of Whitehall in recent years about the importance of foreign language teaching in schools. At the same time that the Government, in effect, allowed secondary school pupils to drop foreign languages after Year 9, all primary schools were instructed to bring in language lessons for the four oldest classes. This led many secondary schools to shed language teachers, while thousands of primary schools went on an urgent search for language expertise. Overall, though, demand for people to train as language teachers is still high, and there are financial incentives too.

But if you're attracted to this as a career path, you need to make an early decision whether to follow the primary or the secondary path, since the training, and the jobs at the end, are completely different.

Both routes usually entail a one-year, postgraduate training course, with plenty of teaching practice. The primary route demands a lower level of language expertise – a good GCSE will do – because it remains predominantly a course to train you as an all-rounder, teaching every subject from arithmetic to art, albeit with a specialism in a foreign language. A key part of the training, though, is a fortnight spent abroad, working in a primary school teaching all manner of subjects in the local language. Just how you're used when you finish training and start work in a primary school here will vary from school to school. But all schools should allow you a year or two to develop as a general class teacher before asking you to exploit your language skills for large chunks of time.

The secondary route is for people with a degree in a foreign language and some competence in a second language as well, and is for those who want to spend almost all their time teaching languages. Nevertheless, the spread of ages and abilities creates a huge variety in classroom experience: from 11-year-olds struggling with the basics to talented A-level students whose aptitude might take you to the borders of your own comfort zone.

Teresa Tinsley, of Cilt, the Government's recognised centre for expertise in languages, argues that secondary teachers also need to be good at marketing. "They need to be good ambassadors for their subjects because they'll need to convince students at the end of Year 9 that it's worth carrying on with studying their language," she says.

Financial incentives differ slightly between sectors. Primary trainees get a £6,000 bursary in their training year, while their secondary counterparts get £9,000 for training and a golden hello of £2,500 at the end of their first full year of teaching. For more details, visit www.cilt.org.uk/training.

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