By Ian Collen

16 June 2021 - 13:18

Secondary pupils in a classroom
'Ninety-two per cent of pupils don’t think languages are relevant to their future career.' Photo ©

British Council

Language Trends Northern Ireland surveys language teachers in Northern Ireland every two years. Its author, Dr Ian Collen, explains some of the findings.

This year’s survey shows that language teachers are encouraging pupils to learn languages and that pupils enjoy language lessons. 

However, just 44 per cent of 12- and 13-year-olds want to continue with a language to GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education).

Ninety-two per cent of pupils don’t think languages are relevant to their future career. 

There is inequity in secondary education

Pupils between 11 and 14 years in most selective schools spend an average two to three hours per week in instructed language classes. Selective schools use an academic test to choose more academically able pupils at age 11.

Pupils in almost all non-selective schools spend less than two hours per week on language learning. 

At important transition points in a young person’s schooling, the door to language learning can be closed. 

Four of the non-selective schools we surveyed reported no pupils learning languages for GCSE. A level (Advanced Level qualifications) provision is precariously low in most schools. Teachers tell us that A level classes do not run if there are not enough pupils. 

We need financial incentive for schools to run A level classes with low numbers. This would encourage school leadership to allow languages classes with fewer than five pupils to be financially viable. 

Covid-19 has affected language learning in most schools 

Only 15 per cent of primary schools we surveyed were teaching a language in the 2020/21 school year. That’s a significant drop from 55 per cent in 2019.

Languages are not part of the primary curriculum in Northern Ireland, unlike other parts of the UK. That means that languages can be de-prioritised. 

Schools with a higher than average number of pupils entitled to free school meals have been more adversely affected. Over half of schools in the most deprived areas told us that there was a ‘big impact’ in language teaching as a result of Covid-19.

Only 28 per cent of schools in the least deprived areas said the same.

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The perceived difficulty of exams is one of the biggest barriers 

Teachers named the ‘nature and content of external exams’ as the main barrier to language learning, closely followed by ‘the way external exams are marked and graded’. 

We therefore have strong evidence based on the full report that a thorough review of modern languages is needed in Northern Ireland. In the classroom, teachers need to focus on language teaching which works for young people.

I believe there is also a need for other qualifications such as business studies, travel and tourism and related subjects to include elements of language learning. This would allow a broader range of young people to experience some language learning. 

I would welcome accreditation in languages post-GCSE, which is not a full A level, but carries UCAS points which are needed for entry to university courses.    

There is no single answer for improving uptake of languages 

We need curriculum reform to allow teachers time for language learning that works for their pupils. And freedom to teach topics that motivate learners and to assess them in an appealing way. 

Classroom topics and modes of assessment have not changed much in the past 40 years. For example, the GCSE assesses listening by hearing pre-recorded material on a CD – even though most of the pupils have never used a CD.

What once worked, is no longer working.

I believe we also need ‘languages’ in the broadest sense to feature on Northern Ireland’s Programme for Government and to have properly funded provision at primary level.  

The future is a mix of online and face-to-face learning

Language learning has communication at its core and there is still no substitute for face-to-face teaching.

Nevertheless, technology has shown that we can teach languages to a limited extent online. I see opportunities to connect classrooms and young people across the world in a more streamlined way than was previously possible.

For example, friendships formed on a face-to-face trip to another country can be continued online. 

There is still a lot to be optimistic about 

We know from this research that there is excellent practice going on in our schools and classrooms. Many teachers are constantly reviewing their pedagogy and there is a genuine commitment to developing the international dimension in most schools.

As one teacher reported, ‘We have a Cumann Gaelach (Irish club) and our pupils participate in Irish speaking competitions’. Most primary schools are enthusiastic about making space for languages on the primary curriculum, with 70 per cent of primary school principals who responded to our survey stating that language learning should be statutory in primary schools in Northern Ireland.

Teachers have the will; but policymakers and others have the way.

Read the full Language Trends Northern Ireland survey.

The report surveyed over 15 per cent of primary schools, 57 per cent of post-primaries and over 1,500 13-14 year-old pupils. 

Dr Ian Collen is lecturer in modern languages education at Queen's University Belfast and author of the Language Trends report. Follow him on Twitter at @NICILT .

Follow @BCouncil_NI on Twitter.

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