How have foreign language lessons changed since you went to school?

Head of modern foreign languages Jackie Lambert teaching French to Year 7 students at Neatherd High

Head of modern foreign languages Jackie Lambert teaching French to Year 7 students at Neatherd High School, Dereham. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

As the government's increasing emphasis on academic subjects sees schools put more focus on modern foreign languages, Martin George talks to one school where the subject has always had a special place.

Head of modern foreign languages Jackie Lambert teaching French to Year 7 students at Neatherd High

Head of modern foreign languages Jackie Lambert teaching French to Year 7 students at Neatherd High School, Dereham. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

In years gone by, Neatherd High School in Dereham, like other high schools, received extra funding from the government for a subject it specialised in. In this case, it was languages.

That particular funding has stopped, but the school still proudly brands itself as 'a specialist language college', because of the importance it attaches to the subject.

For Jacqueline Lambert, its subject leader for modern foreign languages, the subject matters economically, socially and culturally.

'The main thing for me is that England and the UK were falling behind all the other countries as far as language learning goes,' she said.

Head of modern foreign languages Jackie Lambert teaching French to Year 7 students at Neatherd High

Head of modern foreign languages Jackie Lambert teaching French to Year 7 students at Neatherd High School, Dereham. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

'I know the world of business and education is crying out for us to do more languages because we are missing out on business opportunities.

'The problem is that a lot of people think everyone speaks English, but that's just not true. A lot of people are much more willing to buy something if it's sold in their language. Just because they speak English does not mean they will be the most willing buyer.'

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She cites a fact the British Council uses on its website to highlight the scale of what it calls the UK's language challenge.

It said: 'According to the Education and Employers Task Force, poor language competency is resulting in a loss of at least £7.3 billion per annum to the UK economy – that's 0.5pc of GDP.'

But it is not just about money.

She points to research showing how learning another language provides skills that other courses cannot, and how it improves the functionality of the brain.

But her case is also more idealistic, and she says pupils are told to 'look outwards, and look at other people's perspectives'.

'I just say how can you do that if you can't speak someone else's language, and really get an insight into someone else's culture?'

At Neatherd, all pupils learn French in their first year, with the top set also learning Latin, which Mrs Lambert says forms a 'really good basis' for learning all other languages.

In their second year, they continue French and take up Spanish, and in Year 9, the year before they start their GCSEs, pupils specialise in one language.

Mrs Lambert says this is earlier than many schools, and allows them to immerse themselves in the language, long before they start thinking about exams.

She thinks it can be more of a battle to enthuse children in largely rural areas such as ours about foreign languages.

'There's an attitude of 'why do we need to learn a language, I'm never going to leave Norfolk'. We do battle that stigma that languages are hard and pointless.'

But she tells her pupils that even employers offering jobs that are solely based in the UK look for language skills, so they can work with offices in other countries.

As a high school subject, modern foreign languages has seen peaks and troughs in its popularity. Now, thanks to the government's emphasis on more traditional subjects, it is set to undergo a resurgence in schools.

The government wants 90pc of pupils to take subjects that form the English Baccalaureate, often known as the EBacc: English, maths, history or geography, the sciences, and a language.

Mrs Lambert said: 'Languages are on the rise, currently. The government is putting a lot more emphasis on them

to include them in the EBacc, so a

lot of schools that dropped them off their curriculum are bringing them back.'

And although that is good news for those who value foreign languages, it brings its own problems, with some fearing that schools will struggle to find qualified language teachers.

Mrs Lambert herself came to the UK from America, securing a visa because of the difficulty schools faced in recruiting qualified French and Spanish teachers.

Different languages themselves see demand rise and fall. Neatherd used to offer French and German, but demand for German dropped and demand for Spanish increased – possibly, Mrs Lambert thinks, because of more families going on holiday there. But now, she finds more parents are interested in German, possibly because of armed service families who spent time in Germany coming back to live near Dereham.

How about other languages, such as Mandarin, Japanese and Arabic?

'A few years ago we offered Mandarin, and it was going very

well, and children were very engaged, but unfortunately it's very hard to find a Mandarin teacher in Norfolk, and we struggled to find a replacement.

'When you talk about Mandarin, Japanese and Arabic, it sounds fantastic, but it's hard to find qualified teachers to teach those subjects.'

The way languages are taught has also changed over the years, according to Mrs Lambert.

Older generations may remember a lot of writing and grammar sheets, rather than speaking and actual interaction, while she says those who are slightly younger may remember a much bigger focus on speaking, and little explanation of the rules of grammar.

'Now, we are going back a little bit to a grammar focus. We definitely believe in teaching the pupils the rules. I think we have found a nice blend.'

Lessons now use a lot of team working, interactive white boards and games.

Mrs Lambert said the reformed modern languages GCSEs were designed to reduce rote memorisation, and increase the ability to converse.

She added: 'It's truly going to be a test of what they can produce in the language, and that's the point. I'm quite pleased, although I know there will be challenges.'

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