By Charlotte Ogilvie

08 May 2015 - 15:34

Language assistants are walking, talking dictionaries with faces, voices and stories to tell.
Language assistants are walking, talking dictionaries with faces, voices and stories to tell. Photo ©

ITN Productions.

They're energetic, enthusiastic and keen to share their language and culture with pupils. The British Council's Charlotte Ogilvie explains why language assistants are such an asset to modern languages departments in UK schools.

They are real people, not paper cut-outs from an old worksheet

French people eat frogs every day, wear stripy clothes, berets, a string of garlic around their necks and carry a baguette under their arms…right? Wrong. Language assistants can act as ‘myth-busters’ and show pupils that national stereotypes, although they may arguably have an element of truth in them, should not be followed blindly.

Spending time with language assistants from countries where the target language is spoken is invaluable. It offers pupils a chance to develop a more realistic impression of what it means to come from another country. When language assistants talk about their lives and bring in photographs, videos and letters from their home countries, it makes language classes more vibrant and relevant to pupils; it helps them develop a better understanding of other cultures. By interacting with a real French person, pupils will learn that, though it is true frogs are a national dish, they are mostly eaten on special occasions; the majority of ‘French’ berets in the world are worn by tourists or at fancy-dress parties and garlic is much more likely to feature in a meal than on a necklace.

They can boost the confidence of teachers in primary schools

Perhaps you can sing 'feliz cumpleaños' (happy birthday) from memory, and understand that 'diez' means ten, while 'Dios' means God. But if you still don’t feel confident using Spanish, let alone teaching it, you are not alone.

Since September 2014, primary school teachers in England have to teach languages to seven to 11-year-olds, regardless of their own abilities. Over half of them possess only elementary language knowledge, with the highest qualification being at GCSE level for 23 per cent, and A-level for 31 per cent. With almost a third of primary teachers feeling ill-equipped to teach modern foreign languages, there is high demand for a workable solution.

One way to take the pressure off is by employing a language assistant. They are native speakers who can work with you to develop and deliver lessons. They can provide new teaching resources and help you improve your own linguistic skills. Remember that Spanish-English dictionary you were given as a gift when you started secondary school? Set it aside. Language assistants are walking, talking dictionaries with faces, voices and stories to tell. With them by your side, you will never be lost for words (or songs, games and activities) again.

They make a huge difference to results

When learning languages, the first aim is usually to get to a stage where you can communicate: to understand and be understood. It’s one thing to be understood by somebody whose mother tongue is the same as yours; however, the confidence pupils gain from communicating in a foreign language with someone who speaks the language at that level is unrivalled.

Language assistants can help pupils with their accents, tones and pronunciation, and support them in developing the ability to sustain a spontaneous conversation. This can be particularly useful in the lead-up to exams, and many teachers believe the increased confidence which has developed in response to regular contact with a language assistant has improved their students’ results.

They provide new materials and exciting teaching resources

Often language assistants arrive at their school at the start of the autumn term with suitcases packed with cultural artefacts including food (if you're lucky), videos of their friends and family, magazines, story books, photographs and music. They give pupils a deeper understanding of other cultures and provoke questions the pupils may not have thought to ask their class teacher.

Language assistants double as cultural ambassadors and the resources they bring to their schools spark pupils’ interest. They show that learning a language means more than developing a knowledge of vocabulary, grammatical structures and pronunciation; it can also be about how to understand and relate to people from other cultures.

It's not surprising that pupils look forward to classes with language assistants and see them as ‘special’ and ‘interesting’. Pupils are genuinely curious about them: the life they lead and the culture they come from.

They have a fresh perspective on language teaching

Language assistants provide a different slant on life and a fresh approach to teaching. They have recently come from their home countries, so they are excited to be working abroad. This newness to teaching, and to the UK, often translates as enthusiasm and eagerness to share their culture with their pupils.

Teachers and language assistants benefit from working together. They can model conversations, spark ideas off each other, share different perspectives and plan lessons and extra-curricular activities together. The enthusiasm they bring to the classroom spurs teachers on to embrace new and creative ways of teaching. They can help even the most advanced speakers improve their own language skills and pronunciation.

They help pupils become more globally aware

‘You’re from Guiana? That’s in Africa, isn't it?’ ‘Actually it’s in Latin America, but it’s technically a part of France, so I speak French.’

Sometimes the world can be a confusing place. Euros seem to be used outside of Europe; Spanish is spoken outside of Spain; French outside of France and German outside of Germany… An effective way of learning about other cultures and languages is through direct contact with them. Language assistants provide this point of contact and allow pupils to travel the world without leaving the classroom. Let’s take French-speaking language assistants as an example. They come from France, Belgium, Canada, French Guiana, Switzerland and from French overseas regions such as Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and Martinique in the Caribbean.

Language assistants are a living, breathing link to the language and country of origin. They are up to date with popular culture and current affairs, and provide a fresh and vibrant perspective on their part of the world. They make authentic communication in the target language possible and help pupils become more globally aware.

Find out how to apply to be a Language Assistant

You might also be interested in: