The problem with languages is that they take years to master and perfect; you can’t, as my students would say, ‘blag French.’

Posted on: 26 Jan 2016

Lucy Ransley, Head of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) at Christ's Hospital School, comments about the perception of languages and how much the LARC has already inspired her students...

There are typically two reactions when I tell people I am a French teacher. They groan and either say, ‘oh I was terrible at languages at school,’ or ‘really? Oh great. I’ve always wanted to learn it. But it’s so difficult. Do you have any tips?’

In 15 years of teaching, the one reaction that I have never had is the person I am speaking to switching into French. Very few of my non-teaching, non-French friends, can actually speak French. Why? Because speaking a second language, any second language is in decline. Could this be because ‘everyone speaks English anyway?!’

The decline in modern languages in British schools is alarming. Indeed 2015 saw a record low in the number of students taking a language at GCSE. Numbers have fallen 40% since 2005.

So why are languages in decline? The simple truth is that they are difficult. Not difficult in an algebraic equations sense, difficult in the sense that you have to do a little bit every day in order to master it. Indeed it’s a little bit like exercise. A little, a few times a week is far more effective than doing a 20 hour stint once a year. But in our culture of instant results, crash diets and intensive courses, society today wants everything in a hurry.

The problem with languages is that they take years to master and perfect. You can’t, as my students would say ‘blag French.’ Whilst the country as a whole has seen a decline in the number of students taking a language at GCSE, CH is bucking this trend.

All of our students take at least one modern language at GCSE but in the last five years the number of students taking two modern languages at GCSE has risen by 25%. Numbers have increased dramatically in the sixth form as well. This is due to the introduction of the IB which now runs alongside the A level course.

So what are we doing here at CH to arrest the decline of MFL? I am honest with our students by telling them that languages are not easy to master. I talk to them about the work ethic they will need to embrace if they are to be successful. I also tell them that universities and employers know that they are difficult and that is why they are so impressed with students who have a language or two. We talk about the different careers that need languages and we talk about the fact that not everyone speaks English – really, honestly, they don’t. We talk about travel and how languages can be fun.

At CH all students study French in Year 7 but in Year 8 they can choose their second language from German, Spanish and Mandarin. This choice has proved really successful so far and many students have opted to continue their chosen language in addition to French at GCSE.

In teaching we embed the study skills needed from Year 7 with regular vocab learning and tests. We don’t shy away from grammar and we certainly don’t shy away from target language which can be heard both in and outside of the classrooms. At CH the message to students is clear and honest. Hard work and effort achieves and when you hold that MFL GCSE certificate in your hand it will be an achievement to truly be proud of and you will have learnt a skill for life.

With the new LARC building, opened in 2015, I fully expect languages to continue to grow at CH. Pupils know that when they set foot inside the LARC, they are entering a world of language and culture. The amount of languages you hear students and teachers speaking in the corridors is great. Students and teachers also benefit from the large library and language laboratory creating a stimulating and creative learning environment and with the view over the South Downs is a good way to get thinking!

The boarding environment at CH means the facility is open during the evening and at weekends for the pupils to access with ease for lesson support or independent learning. There are loads of comfy places in the library where our language assistants go to conduct the speaking lessons. Students who feel relaxed and comfortable are more able to focus on their language learning and feel more confident with their speaking.

We aim to increase the number of pupils reading languages at University. In 2015, our leavers have gone on to study a language as a full or part degree course at Kings’ College, Cardiff, SOAS and Kent. We also hope that this new language learning hub will stimulate more students to eventually go into careers which will make good use of these skills or perhaps to enter the world of teaching to encourage future generations of language speakers!

With languages in British schools in decline, CH is bucking this trend with not only more pupils studying languages but with the new and inspirational facility, LARC (Language and Resource Centre). The LARC was officially opened in October by the School’s President, HRH The Duke of Gloucester and the Lord Lieutenant of West Sussex, Mrs Susan Pyper. A generous gift from a former pupil (Old Blue), Jamie Arnell, made all the difference to the project getting underway.

Jamie said: “I was fortunate to receive a good grounding in Latin and to study French and German through to A level. I could not at that time have imagined that I would go on to spend so much of my life working in languages other than English.”

The state-of-the-art Language and Resource Centre at Christ’s Hospital provides: Bright and spacious teaching facilities for both Modern Foreign Languages (French, German, Spanish and Mandarin and short course Japanese and Russian) and Classics (Latin and Greek);

  • A digital laboratory for pupils to work independently using a variety of media such as audio, video, text files and language websites;
  • Modern Languages classrooms fitted with interactive whiteboards to support grammar and vocabulary learning of core languages;
  • A fully equipped library that occupies the top floor of the new building with panoramic views across the South Downs;
  • Dedicated computer suites for the teaching of ICT (Information and Computer Technology);
  • Additional classrooms, breakout rooms and learning support facilities.

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