Language and Meaning Language is best acquired when there is a perceived intrinsic purpose for using it. In other words, use of language should be communicative in a way that seems relevant and interesting to the student. This engages the brain in a way that replicates the processes of early language learning by infants. Deep-level learning takes place; language is internalised.
Healthy human beings enjoy using language. We are equipped genetically to use it: purposefully, meaningfully, creatively and autonomously. It is argued that modern school syllabuses promote a relevant, communicative approach. So why don’t more pupils experience this?
In reality, most of what we are offering pupils under the heading of communication is only preparation for real communication… somewhere, some time. There is little current application; no actual message transfer; no purpose for using the language except as practice – for some future scenario, or for passing an exam. This is just drill, no matter how much we focus it on real life. It is not communication.
Time for Change Without contact with native speakers or the imminent prospect of a visit to a target language country, we try to incorporate Ersatz meaning and purpose into the language activities to compensate for the artificiality of the classroom setting.
This is easier to achieve in Primary School settings. We are not yet bound by government-dictated schemes of work; there are generally no exam syllabuses to follow. (Long may that last!)
At Secondary level we desperately need to change things. We must start by shaking off underlying assumptions about language learning, deeply influenced - more than most realise - by 100’s of years of Latin teaching. If we believe in oral work, for example, shouldn’t we limit MFL class sizes to 15? Or again, is it acceptable that we can offer exam success to pupils who may know nothing about the TL country, have never once been there, and have never even talked with a native speaker? Can you really learn a language in a traditional classroom?
For most of our pupils, an exam award, under current circumstances, is going to be of little use. It is poor preparation for “the real thing” in later life. Freed from the straitjacket of exam specifications and government-dictated schemes of work we could offer a more flexible, natural and enjoyable language learning experience – and accredit it with sensible standards provided by the Common European Framework.
There is an important minority of pupils for whom working with language in the traditional ways is suitable, and even enjoyable. Many of these pupils will specialise in language studies. For them, the academic route of exam success, prepared for by years of practice in laboratory-like conditions (dissecting and analysing), is fine.
At large, though, we have a major crisis on our hands. We need to think radically and offer effective new approaches - instead of trying to prop up an outdated system.
The following link takes you to a discussion paper which offers some pointers. Click here.
It's surely time for change...
Bored and frustrated in her French lessons, Lauren leads her teacher a merry dance - until things start getting "real"....