Think about the ‘why’: London language school director offers ministers advice following proposals to make language learning compulsory in primary schools

Share Article

Last week’s education proposals from Michael Gove have been met with some skepticism from those working in both the education and the EFL sectors. We need to change our whole approach, says David Wilkins.

News Image
If we want our young people to use languages to travel, to enjoy and, above all, to communicate, then we absolutely do not have a system in place to enable this to happen.

Last week’s education proposals from Michael Gove – to make children in English primary schools learn a language from the age of seven – have been met with some skepticism from those working in both the education sector and the EFL sector.

While many commend the intention behind the proposal, they question its feasibility or – given that more and more schools are becoming academies and free schools, which do not have to follow the curriculum – its purpose. David Wilkins, Director of language school UIC London (whose motto is ‘languages for living’) says it is also a question of intention.

“I’ve seen several comments in the press along the lines of ‘Which language?’ and ‘How will we make up the shortage of qualified language teachers?’ but, for me, the critical question has to be ‘What are they learning a language for?”

“If we want students in England to have language skills in order to go to university and read literature in its original language or become translators, then we already have a perfectly good system. If, however, we want our young people to use languages to travel, to enjoy and, above all to communicate, then we absolutely do not have a system in place to enable this to happen.”
The Education Secretary is also promising to make the teaching of English ‘more rigorous’ in the future, which will include and increased focus on spelling and grammar – and poetry, which children will be expected to learn and recite.

“My response to this is, again, why?” said David. “A clear communicative reward is what makes children want to study any language. British children now spend more time online or in front of the TV than anywhere else in Europe. As long as screens are being used as electronic babysitters, children are not really even learning to communicate interactively in their own language. We need to change that approach before addressing the questions surrounding the learning of foreign languages.”

The Government believes that equipping children with foreign language skills will help them compete in an increasingly global – and competitive – economy. While this idea works in theory, making them study foreign languages without addressing their motivation, or the problems with the curriculum, it is not likely to work in practice.

“As head of a language school offering courses in English, European languages, Japanese, Chinese and Arabic, I can draw on experience in making language learning enjoyable and therefore successful. For younger children, this means songs and fun, and not necessarily teaching a language because it might be the future language of business.

“For example, our Japanese language course is one of the most popular courses, but I wouldn’t necessarily advocate teaching it to young children or those in large groups. While it is undoubtedly true that the younger they start the better, it is also true that the sooner you put them off the more difficult it is to ever get them back again.”

Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

David Wilkins
Visit website