5 ways to help your pupils love languages

Liz Dyer

Liz Dyer is marketing manager at London-based language learning publisher, EuroTalk. With a degree in Hispanic Studies from the University of Nottingham, Liz is a great believer in the value of languages - not only as an academic subject, but as a practical life skill. She is also the organiser of EuroTalk’s annual competition, the Junior Language Challenge, which aims to inspire a love of languages in primary school children across the UK.

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The past few years in the UK have seen a steady decline in the number of young people studying foreign languages at GCSE, A-Level and university. In other words, as soon as learning a language becomes optional, the majority of students give it up. But why, when languages offer a variety of proven benefits (see below), are they still seen as an unnecessary subject by so many? And what can teachers do to inspire their students – not only to persevere with languages, but actually to enjoy them?

"It’s about giving students an opportunity to understand the world."

Why is language learning so important?

One of the main battles faced by language teachers in the UK is the widely held assumption that ‘everyone speaks English’. And while it’s certainly true that English is hugely important for international business and culture, that by no means makes all other languages irrelevant. Indeed, research has revealed countless benefits that reveal why learning other languages is so important. Candidates with a second language are more attractive to employers, and may even enjoy a higher salary; a study by Albert Saiz from MIT found that having a second language can boost earnings by 2 or 3 per cent. And that’s not all; it’s also been found that bilingualism is good for the brain, delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s and improving cognitive skills and memory.

In addition, and despite what many students believe, learning a second – or third – language is about far more than just reciting verb endings or learning lists of useless vocabulary. It’s about giving students an opportunity to understand the world in which they live, and the other cultures around them. And they may even gain a better understanding of their first language through studying the building blocks of a second.

This all sounds great on paper. But in the real world, there’s a problem - one that language teachers are all too familiar with.

As compelling as all the above reasons may be, they’re unlikely to mean much to a reluctant teenager. The majority of students will be unimpressed by the claim that learning a language will improve their cognitive skills, or help them appreciate other cultures. So how do you convince your pupils that languages are not only beneficial, but actually enjoyable?

1. Use the Internet – it’s free!

Gone are the days when the only resource available to language teachers was books and tapes. The Internet offers a vast array of methods that you can use to your advantage – like social media, YouTube, or Skype. Where we used to have French penpals, today students can have face-to-face, instant conversations with real people, and make friends all over the world. And the best thing about the Internet? It won’t take a penny out of your budget.

2. Encourage pupils to learn from each other

It might not even be necessary to use Skype. UK schools are seeing increasing numbers of pupils whose first language isn’t English. Too often, the press paints this as a bad thing, diverting valuable time and resources, but it doesn’t have to be if you see it as an opportunity. Invite students from other backgrounds to be ambassadors and teach their fellow pupils (and teachers) a little of their language and culture. Learning from their peers is likely to be more attractive than studying in a formal classroom environment, and will help students understand the real world potential of languages.

3. Try speaking their language

We all remember our French lessons at school, learning incredibly useful phrases like ‘the dog is on the chair’. How many of us have actually used that phrase since school? Maybe one in a million (Probably not even that many...). Pupils will always respond better to lessons that are relevant to them – so why not get them to practise the past tense by talking about what happened on their favourite TV show last night? Or the conditional by describing what they would do if they met their favourite band? You can still cover the essential elements of the syllabus, but in a more fun and up-to-date way that will mean more to your students.

4. Put it in context

Your students will only truly begin to understand the value of languages if they see the whole picture. Learning Spanish purely for the sake of passing an exam can feel like a pointless and deeply unexciting prospect, so try including lessons on Spanish food, music, fashion, dance, literature, history… That way your pupils get to discover a whole new country and will begin to understand what they could experience in the future through learning the language. And you can get your students involved in planning and researching the lessons – yet another way you can use the Internet and its endless resources to your advantage.

5. Get competitive

The best way to motivate anyone – of any age – is to introduce an element of competition. In addition, research has shown that we all learn better when we’re enjoying ourselves – so try and use a game-based approach in your lessons. Set up a language quiz in a TV game show format, with prizes for the top-scoring team. Or you could get your students to write and perform a short play in the language they’re learning, and find some impartial judges to choose the best one.

All of the above suggestions can be boiled down to two key factors – if we’re going to make languages a more attractive proposition for students, we need to find a way to make them both enjoyable and relevant. Only by encouraging pupils to see language as part of a bigger picture – and have fun doing it – can we hope to reverse the current worrying downward trend.

How do you promote languages in your school? Let us know below!

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