What is modern about our ‘Modern Foreign Languages’?
Uptake in ‘Modern Foreign Languages’ has been declining year-on-year throughout the UK education system, from schools to universities, for at least the past seven years. Education professionals have stated the reasons for the decline include: most school systems undermine the value of languages, as they introduce them late into the school curriculum; they are not compulsory; and students believe studying a language is difficult so they prefer to choose easier subjects that they know they will succeed in, such is the pressure on results and outcomes.
Lord Baker’s recent comments, regarding the failure of Modern Foreign Language studies to prepare students, and society, for the ‘digital revolution’, are further damaging the perceived value of the subjects. These comments are also confusing because its technology that’s leading globalisation, and therefore driving the demand for language acquisition skills.
Perhaps the focus should be on what determines a “modern foreign language”. Although approximately 414 million people around the world speak Spanish, it is the second more commonly spoken language in the world after Mandarin, which still doesn’t feature on the majority of schools’ lists.
The suggestion by Lord Baker that half of students should take GCSE Computer Science misses the point; these students are already fluent in the language of technology – what educators should be focusing on is how to harness their students’ proficiency in using technology to improve their learning across the curriculum, including the languages.
Whilst some of Lord Baker’s eight-point plan for education may provide valid suggestions for preparing for the ‘digital revolution’, for today’s digitally native learners, who already live every day with the opportunities of the digital age, the focus should instead be on giving them the skills to be successful in this ‘always–on’ global society within which they already live – and not on gaining a qualification in a technology subject.
Perhaps in this way, technology is already the leading “modern” global language; todays digitally native students, irrespective of their native tongue, know how to use a tablet or smart phone, to send an email, to connect via Skype or FaceTime or Google Hangout, and collaborate and share using social platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat.
The UK’s education system should be broadened, not restricted to ever changing technology trends; the technology we would teach to students today is likely to be out of date by the time they enter the world of work. Who would have thought that careers as a “wearable tech designer” or “social media assassin” would have existed ten years ago. Again, this shows the importance of teaching students how to learn if they are to keep up with the world beyond the school gates.
Updating the curriculum, to be broader and internationally minded, much like the International Baccalaureate, could also go a long way to winning back some of the lost international student market. If we can offer a truly international curriculum, encompassing language learning and putting the student and the opportunities and skills empowered by technology at the heartbeat of the process, we would be in a much better position than we are by limiting our thinking and restricting the curriculum in an either or shoot out between language acquisition and computer science.