Call to liven up language teaching
Teachers should challenge British insularity and reluctance to learn languages and teach pupils to speak more than just "functional" phrasebook expressions, according to a leading headmistress.
Good language lessons can help children to gain an "outward-looking perspective" on the world and an understanding of different cultures, Bernice McCabe, co-director of the Prince's Teaching Institute (PTI), suggests.
She also says that if possible young people should be encouraged to travel abroad, requiring them to speak in another language, as a way to "bring the study of languages to life".
Mrs McCabe's comments will come at the start of the PTI's modern foreign languages course, which is being held in Oxford this weekend.
She will tell delegates: "The best teachers represent for our pupils a cultural confidence and outward-looking perspective on the world, a world with which they will connect much more than previous generations.
"Not just in terms of gap years spent travelling and global companies for which they may end up working, but a world full of new drama and music, shared concerns for the environment and political stability, the opportunities to share international experience, and make friends.
"The best language teachers do not follow pre-digested workbooks aiming at functional phrasebook competence. They help our students understand the richness of human communication, develop the desire for self-expression, and immerse themselves in other cultures.
"In fact, the best language teachers are a thorn in the side of British insularity and reticence."
Mrs McCabe, who is also headmistress of North London Collegiate School, a private girls' school, suggests that there have been "obstacles" in the past to language teaching, including the perception that it is harder to gain a top grade in languages than in many other subjects.
In schools where results are critical, this belief is likely to have a "discouraging effect" on recruiting pupils to take the subject.
The exams regulator Ofqual has examined the problem and the way language exams are set and marked is expected to be changed before next summer, she notes.
Mrs McCabe goes on to say that the PTI course will look for ways to give language teaching "new life".
"The best way, as I see it, is to concentrate on improving the quality of teaching and to look for practical and effective means of reinforcing and enriching what goes on in the classroom.
"Ideally this involves travelling abroad and exposing your pupils to the need to communicate in a language other than their own."
If this is not possible, there may be other activities that can "bring the study of languages to life and make them seem more attractive to your pupils", Mrs McCabe says.
The residential course comes amid major changes to language teaching, with all primary schools now required to teach a foreign language to pupils between the ages of seven and 11.