Encouraging lesser taught languages

Tina Lonsdale
discusses her experiences of promoting language learning at a British high school, and identifies ways to promote and provide for language diversity in schools and colleges.

polyglot headerBritish exam boards use the term ‘lesser taught languages’ to describe those languages that are taught in only a minority of British schools. These languages include many that are widely spoken in Britain. Unfortunately, the status of being a lesser taught language – and the costs attached to teaching provision - can lead to a lack of linguistic diversity in schools, colleges and other institutions. Formby High School, in North-West England, has developed the Polyglot Programme in order to encourage language diversity, support students’ language learning and encourage students to take qualifications in lesser taught languages. This article takes a closer look at the Polyglot Programme, identifying obstacles to the teaching of lesser taught languages and providing ideas for how to overcome them.

The Modern Languages Department at Formby High School has a background in providing GCSE and A Level courses for curriculum languages (Spanish and French). Staff established the Polyglot Programme when they noticed that many students either already spoke, or had a desire to speak, other lesser taught languages. Although a ‘polyglot’ is someone who speaks or writes many languages, we use ‘Polyglots’ to describe all language learners and provide a positive group identity. With the power of a curious word, ‘Polyglots’ also catches students’ attention!

The Polyglot Programme is aimed at three groups of students: those who are already bilingual or biliterate and can work towards accreditation via exam entry at GCSE or A Level, or could generally develop their language use to a more academic level; those who have a background in a lesser taught language yet speak little or none of that language and need encouragement to become more proficient, and a third ‘ab initio’ group – those who are keen to learn another language that has taken their fancy.

As well as enabling students to take qualifications, we offer challenges and competitions ranging from translation techniques for biliterate students, to language awareness competitions involving the whole school. The Polyglot Programme has become an active, high profile part of school life, with students gaining qualifications in languages including Russian, Dutch, Polish and Turkish. Students’ interest in languages has grown, and a group has been created for ab initio students who attend weekly language-learning sessions. The use of peer mentoring has also enabled bilingual students to teach and offer support to others.

The Polyglot Programme provides an example of how an educational institution can provide support to those who (want to) speak lesser taught languages, thereby enhancing their future employability. When establishing the programme, we encountered a number of obstacles. Not least among these was the task of identifying those who might want to learn languages and/or take qualifications – it turned out that we had more budding language-learners than we realised! The following sections identify issues relating to the teaching of lesser taught languages, and suggestions for how you can help encourage linguistic diversity in your own institution.

Deciding on exam entry

Once you have identified a cohort of those with additional languages, it is important to determine speakers’ levels of ability. This will help determine whether exam entries are suitable and at what level.

Where suitable, are all those who have the ability to sit an exam in a lesser taught language currently being entered, and is exam entry being promoted? A lack of teachers, results analysis and cost implications are all factors that can make an institution reluctant to enter students for exams. In other instances, it may have been assumed that students do not have other languages, or that bilingual students do not need qualifications as their abilities are beyond the level tested by GCSE or A Level exams. For example, Formby High School would not, at first glance, be deemed a school with a multicultural background; however, out of approximately 1,000 students, there are generally 30 different language backgrounds, and 25 to 30 bilingual students. Although this figure may seem small, how many more of these smaller entries are being missed out across the country? Identifying these students, and encouraging them to take qualifications, would help ensure that a greater overall number of students take qualifications in lesser-taught languages.

If bilinguals are considered to have abilities beyond the level where an exam would be encouraged, it is worth asking whether we would discourage a talented tennis player or musician from taking GCSE or A Level qualifications. We probably would not, and linguists also need paper recognition of their skills. Those with relatives who fluently speak an additional language may speak very little of it themselves, or may be fluent: a qualification helps to clarify bilinguals’ ability levels on a nationally-recognised scale, providing a useful point of reference for future courses or employers.

As a result of these practical issues and perceived barriers, there may be many individuals or groups who are not entered for qualifications. An audit of skills, and time spent researching possible qualifications, can help encourage more students/employees to take qualifications in lesser taught languages.

Promoting a positive image
The idea of being ‘different’ can be either positive or negative - many young people want to be the same as everyone else, not different. Teenagers who speak a language other than English at home may become distant from that language if their friends do not have a similarly diverse linguistic home life; they may in turn become alienated from family members. Dealing with language backgrounds can be a sensitive area, and news items about immigration can affect how people view their language or lead them to fear how others view it.

Providing a group for those who speak additional languages can help promote a positive identity - group members may speak different languages, but their skills and backgrounds are similar. The Polyglot Programme runs a ‘who’s who’ activity, in which students use a colour-coding system to help define their language use, helping them to discuss when and where they use their different language skills and to share stories or anxieties regarding their language levels. Whichever additional language they speak, students identify as part of a single community representing different languages, and are curious about each other’s languages.

These efforts also help parents to made links with other bilinguals, ensuring that their own language skills do not become dormant. For example, a parent of two German bilingual students organised a German ‘meet up’ group as part of the Polyglot Programme. This group meets up for film nights and cake-making, providing both adults and children with a focus for their language use.

Defining language levels
Language learners often find it difficult to describe the level to which they speak a language. At Formby High School, it became clear that students are often wary of saying they are ‘fluent’ if they have had no formal language training; often, they do not even want to describe their language level as ‘good’ if they are not biliterate (they speak and understand the spoken word, but do not read and write in the language). Students may compare their language level to family members who are fluent, and therefore downplay their own abilities, while those who know that they are bilingual may not want to appear boastful about their language skills. If students have not see exam papers or exemplar work, they may not have realised that the exam level is within their ability range.

A related problem concerns the terminology – notably ‘EAL’, ‘AEAL’ and ‘bilingual’ - used to label students with additional languages. It can be hard to identify students as EAL (English as an Additional Language) because the exact definition – individuals for whom English is a second (weaker) language - is vague, and many parents and schools may not be certain as to when to use the term. Once an EAL student is able to chat confidently with friends and answer questions in class, it can be wrongly assumed that they can, for example, also write a history essay to the same standard. Students who have attained this level are classed as AEAL (Advanced English as an Additional Language), and despite their fluency in speaking situations they nonetheless require support for around seven years in order to being their academic abilities in the language up to those of their monolingual peers. Many AEAL speakers may benefit from access to a bilingual dictionary in class and in exams.

Catering for the needs of bilingual students can be problematic as ‘EAL’ and ‘AEAL’ may strike students as irrelevant labels in light of their high English skills. If you have English as an additional language, you may well have two ‘first’ languages in which you have a more or less equal level of ability, or in which English is the stronger language and the non-English language is the one that requires support. In these cases, the individual would probably not classify themselves as EAL, yet may need support for their additional language literacy skills if they are to improve as bilinguals. Without support, they are at risk of language attrition, i.e. damage to or loss of their additional language skills.

Although the terminology may be tricky at times, it helps to ensure that staff are aware of students’ levels and linguistic backgrounds. For example, use of the ‘EAL’ and ‘AEAL’ in reference to students may alert staff to a need to check that letters are clearly understood by parents, who may not share their children’s bilingual abilities. Awareness of a family’s linguistic abilities may also help explain a student’s particular literacy ‘tic’ that a teacher has noticed in a student’s work, and highlight where additional cultural references may be useful in class discussions.

Supporting bilinguals in exam entry
It is crucial to tailor support to individual students. Even for students who happily use an additional language at home, or who have peers with whom to chat, their language use is often based around naturally repetitive scenarios, and they may have little opportunity to develop more varied or academic skills unless an educational focus is provided. Resources, websites and exemplar materials are readily available to those students leaning the main taught languages, but what about speakers of those languages which are not part of their school’s taught curriculum?

Where exams are available, students need advice and encouragement, particularly younger students who may be able to access an early entry yet are faced with a lonely study group and extra work on top of their other studies. These students often feel under pressure to know more than they do in the language to be tested and to automatically achieve an A* for any language exam they sit. Many also feel wary of the written papers, as they do not make extensive use of their written skills. Consider how often teenage English speakers write at home in English: how many use mostly text messages and social media updates, only really writing at length when doing homework? Students with an additional language do not have this homework practice in their additional language, and their chances of developing a written style are therefore reduced. Some also worry that their language use is too informal or colloquial, and that others may not accept the way they write or speak.
Students who take on the task of an A Level qualification find that they are also tested on their general knowledge of the politics, environmental issues, culture and history of the country/ies whose language they are learning. This may be a country that a student has never visited, and so a student with no humanities GCSE experience finds themselves in the difficult position of learning the history of Poland in World War Two in order to answer an A Level essay in Polish.

It is easier to support exam entry for lesser taught languages if there are exemplar speaking files on exam board websites, exemplar written tasks, series of questions relating to the relevant topics, and forums where knowledge can be shared. Perhaps exam boards could collaborate on a single specification that would save schools and colleges time in organisation and preparation? This specification could be used for any non-mainstream language, meaning that study groups could better accommodate all students who are to sit a language exam, regardless of language. These groups could then discuss study skills, structuring of work and mark schemes pertinent to all languages, bringing language learners together and enabling them to aid each other’s learning.

Local schools can also support students across their borough. Some areas have local support groups that offer study days and resources to help with exam entry for languages that are locally popular. For more isolated entrants, more could be made of tutorials via video conferencing or social media networks, which can provide distance learning-style tutor support to schools and students, sharing ideas and resources. The sharing of contacts by the schools in a borough can also facilitate the provision of speaking tests and therefore encourage more schools to feel able to enter more students for exams. For example, Formby High School has a successful support link with another local school, which has led to collaboration and support for both staff and students; contact with a local university has also led to language input from visiting lecturers.

In the future, technology such as video conferencing could be used by examiners, enabling them to perform speaking tests remotely and minimising the reliance on costly visits to schools. There will be opportunities to use new technology that can benefit the lesser taught languages cohort by making costs less prohibitive. In the meantime, the benefits of exam accreditation for individual students are such that the processes and paperwork are still worth the effort.

This article has identified ways in which schools and colleges can encourage the learning of lesser taught languages. Not only do these efforts help people to improve their language skills, but they also help to ensure a linguistically diverse future for schools, colleges and other institutions: for example, the more GCSE and A Level students gaining qualifications in various languages, the more going on to study them at a higher level, in turn ensuring linguistic diversity in Higher Education. The following is a brief list of ideas for encouraging the provision of lesser taught languages in your own school or college:

Audit language skills in your institution – you may be surprised by skills that people have not mentioned.

Check out which language qualifications are currently offered – could there be a qualification suitable for a student to add to their CV, or which would encourage their academic or professional development?

Encourage peer to peer support so that those with higher language levels can help those with less confidence.

Run a taster class in a language, or offer your own language skills to a local school or college as a volunteer.

Be aware that those who have English as an additional language, and who have a high degree of fluency and accuracy in everyday spoken English, may not have the corresponding academic language proficiency.

Remember that those who are bilingual may not be fully fluent in both languages, may be uncomfortable speaking in front of others, or may not be able to read in the language that they speak.

Look for opportunities for bilinguals to actively use their skills in real settings, e.g. helping with visitors, supporting peers, translating notices.

Use displays to indicate who your language speakers are.

Collaborate and make contacts with other local institutions to enhance the possibilities that can be offered. What can they offer you and what can you offer them?

Online resources
Routes into Languages is a consortium of universities that works with schools and colleges, encouraging people to study a diverse range of languages. They provide ideas, competitions and networking opportunities that can be used with all languages.

Speak to the Future is a campaign group that highlights the importance of languages, language learning and professional language activities.

The National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum promotes effective teaching and learning for EAL and bilingual students. It offers information to teachers and parents through research papers, training and conferences.

About the author
Tina Lonsdale is a teacher of Modern Foreign Languages at Formby High School and facilitates the school’s Polyglot Programme for students with additional language backgrounds.

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