While the world goes online, are UK schools falling behind as the cultural school-exchange visit loses its gloss?
Results from the British Council’s most recent language trends survey in UK schools have revealed that we are spending LESS time training our children in a second language and their learning experience is being curtailed by less emphasis on cultural exchange visits.
Language learning in schools is being greatly damaged by the reduction in opportunities to engage with native speakers and experience the culture at first hand. For decades, school exchanges and trips abroad organised by school languages departments have provided pupils with valuable first-hand experience of the language and culture being studied in the classroom. More often than not, they have presented pupils with their first taste of using another language in a real context and have not only given pupils a tremendous boost of confidence but inspired future learning and a love of the language. These are now threatened by a number of factors, including funding and the reluctance to allow pupils out of school because of the demands of other courses.
There also appears to have been a cultural shift in which teachers note a growing reluctance on the part of parents and pupils to host ‘strangers’ in their home or for pupils to be accommodated with unknown families abroad. Inventive teachers appear to be managing successfully to offer trips based on carefully selected youth hostels and in other subjects, schools provide opportunities to travel abroad for, e.g. sports trips. However, it is the DfE (Department for Education) guidelines which are proving to be a serious blow for school exchanges and trips, with a huge number of teachers commenting that well-established, long running programmes of exchanges and visits are having to be abandoned because of the guidelines. At the same time, funding issues are severely limiting the employment of native-speaker language assistants in state schools, individuals whose impact is highly rated in a wide range of areas including listening and speaking skills, extending pupils’ vocabulary and general understanding of the language, cultural awareness and confidence.
Given the limitations on school trips abroad, the role of language assistants would seem ever more vital in providing a model of authentic language in someone closer to pupils’ own age, opportunities for them to learn about cultural and current affairs, and practise using the language themselves.
The effect of all these factors is that language study is becoming more and more an exclusively classroom-based subject, starved of the air of experiences which give pupils an opportunity to use the language they have learnt to engage with the wider world – the sort of experiences which provide a sense of purpose and enjoyment. These issues must be tackled if language learning is to thrive again in our schools, since the subject cannot survive in a bubble.
Encouragement must be given to alternative methods of language acquisition for young people. E-learning, online resources and social media will pay a larger part in filling these gaps in the future.
Our overall conclusion is that, although there have been great changes on the wider political and international scene, the issues emerging for language teaching in our schools are very much those identified in previous years. Many teachers are working extremely hard to improve standards and recruitment to language courses in their schools and would welcome concerted action on an increased scale in order to ensure that the many positive aspirations in current government policy are successfully implemented.
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