Make language come alive and have value, make language worth learning
Dr John Hind, principal at Dame Allan’s Schools, looks at the importance of offering innovative opportunities to make languages worth learning.
Following reports on the drop in entries to GCSE modern foreign languages, Dr John Hind details his schools' initiatives to help combat this decline.
The Dame Allan’s perspective is, perhaps, quite an unusual one for the independent sector in that we do not make the study of a modern foreign language compulsory at GCSE. However, take up is strong – around 80% of our pupils typically choose to continue their studies in French, Spanish or German and each language has a significant take up at A-level.
Perhaps part of the reason for this lies in the opportunities we offer to make use of the languages learned. Friday 30 November saw the opening of the Relais de La Mémoire Conference in our schools. For the fourth time since we joined Relais in 2004 we hosted students from schools in France, Austria, Germany and Poland. Founded as the youth wing of Mémoire des Déportés et Résistants d’Europe, Relais exists to prevent the horrors of past wars being revisited in Europe; its motto ‘La Mémoire construit l’Avenir’ encapsulating its purpose. This year the conference has focused on women and war with keynote speakers Yvonne Ridley and Professor Martin Pugh and ‘tables rondes’ discussions led by guests focusing on topics including the work of Médecins Sans Frontières, the life of Anne Frank and first hand experiences of the Rwandan genocide. Traditionally too, the conference explores creative and artistic responses to the main themes, with groups producing dance, music, dramatic, artistic and poetic responses to the stimulus material to which they have been exposed.
In each of these circumstances, young people are required to converse in different languages – French being predominant – about real life issues. Rather than learning by rote in a classroom, (and the demise of the ‘old GCSE’ is much to be applauded in that regard), students have the opportunity to discuss things that matter to them and to explore the limits of their language skills in doing do. It can be taxing – dusting off my school French and German for the opening assembly was difficult enough, just a sentence in Polish was an even greater challenge – but it is that experience of using language that brings it alive and gives it a purpose.
And, of course, this year’s conference has a special significance. With our relationship with Europe at the top of the news agenda, it is vital that the tradition of studying other cultures through their languages continues. Now of all times we must strive to prevent our culture becoming a wall between ourselves and those who share different cultures and backgrounds. Indeed, it is by learning about those cultures that we enrich ourselves and also promote friendship and cooperation with others. It is that commitment to working collaboratively to ensure the horrors of the past are never repeated in Europe that underscores the very existence of Relais de la Mémoire, and which teaches us that what unites us – our common humanity and respect for our fellow men and women – is much stronger than any language, race or cultural issues which might divide us. The founders of the Déportés et Résistants d’Europe were great men and women like Stephan Hessel; listening to them speak their language and engaging with others in discussing their words makes the language come alive and have value: it makes languages worth learning.