DOES language learning have a place in the Scottish curriculum? Yes. Are modern languages and their teachers under pressure in secondary schools? Yes. Has there been a better opportunity for promoting language learning in our schools ? No.
Language learning has a vital place in Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) on a learner journey from 3-18 but in a manner that does not see it as the preserve of the secondary school.
It has always baffled me that traditionally in Scotland, given its place in Europe, we started language learning so late in a child’s development.
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The earlier we expose children to learning languages, the better their chance is of seeing this as something that is just part of their culture.
From a child development point of view, there’s much research to confirm that children are more receptive educationally and emotionally to language learning from an early age.
They soak it up and acquire language skills at a great pace. We know that bilingualism not only helps the cognitive development of the child but also that children who are in bilingual education such as Gaelic Medium Education also attain and achieve at least as well as, in many cases better, than their monoglot peers. They are fluent in two languages and are learning a third by the age of 11. In addition, there is another plus to early exposure to acquiring additional languages; most parents like it, understand it and support schools that promote it.
The Scottish Government-led 1+2 languages programme is a long-term policy commitment started in 2011 due to run until 2021, aimed at making it normal for all children and young people in Scotland to learn languages from primary one.
Recent research on the programme by the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (Ades) found notable successes, enthusiasm, and sector leading work in primary schools. Teachers, educators, and our youngest learners were being creative and innovative in language learning.
Many secondaries have not engaged in great numbers with this or seized the opportunity for the future of language learning.
As a result of the policy, secondaries will soon welcome youngsters with far more advanced linguistic competencies and the confidence in languages that most don’t have in the traditional Scottish make-up. Sadly, the 12-year-old I know best falls into the category of having scant exposure to language learning in the seven years of his primary education.
This is difficult territory; most primary teachers have no language qualification in their first degree and lots of professional development is required but Ades found some great enthusiasm for this.
I have a vision of specialist primary languages teachers serving groups of primary schools, delivering a range of languages beyond our traditional offering of French and German.
Universities with initial teacher education responsibilities must also look at their courses and ensure their primary graduates have the skills to deliver this requirement.
The journey of a secondary school pupil through the system is one replete with pressures, opportunities and mixed messages.
The principle of personalisation and choice is one I favour in the nature of the curriculum that our teenagers follow, recognising of course the requirements of literacy, numeracy and a range of skills preparing our young people for life in a rapidly changing world. I do not want to see them forced into language learning until they leave school.
But I do want all schools to make the offer of a range of languages and opportunities for all learners.
What is the challenge for secondary school modern languages teachers? How are they going to rise to this challenge?
Yes, the figures prove that there are fewer teachers of languages and uptake in secondary schools is declining, but whose fault is that?
Like many things in education, there’s a complexity of factors but let’s not blame CfE; it is actually in CfE that the opportunities for language learning exists.
Our young learners really need to see the worth of modern languages in their journey through education and there are lots of opportunities out there for those with linguistic skills and qualifications at all levels.
However, the courses that schools offer must be attractive, relevant, motivational and part of a planned learner journey with real opportunities beyond school.
We must take advantage of the unique opportunity that the 1+2 programme gives Scotland and let language learning flourish.