Employability for Languages Handbook

I’m very excited to be working on a new initiative with two of my University of Southampton colleagues, Erika Corradini and Kate Borthwick. As part of an employability project that we are conducting for Routes into Languages, we are editing an Employability for Languages handbook. We’ve invited contributions and will be showcasing inspiring case studies in the area of employability for languages graduates. The result will be an open access e-book which will be freely available for download. We’re very much looking forward to receiving expressions of interest and I’ll update on our progress later on.


A few reflections on modern languages and elitism

I was recently asked to speak at a widening participation workshop organised by Routes into Languages East Midlands about why we need to widen participation in language learning, which is one of the key objectives of the Routes into Languages programme. In preparing my presentation for the event, I started out by simply googling ‘languages an elitist subject.’ What came up was a wide variety of media headlines from the last decade – a few of these are listed below:

These headlines do seem to indicate that there really is a media discourse about languages as socially elitist in the UK which will be challenging for those of us in the languages community to break down.

When it comes to the evidence about what is actually going on in this area, the most recent Language Trends survey (Board & Tinsley, 2014) paid some attention to this and reported that among its respondents, fee-paying independent schools were more likely than maintained state schools to offer continuity of language in the transition from Key Stage 2 to 3 and more likely to offer more than one language in KS3. Additionally, as has been much publicised, exam entries in languages at both GCSE and A level include disproportionately high numbers of entries from the independent sector. Most recent GCSE figures show a 15% gap in favour of independent schools, for example. Post-16, the situation is even more pronounced with 32% of all A-level entries in 2013 coming from the independent sector according to Language Trends.

And what of universities? Well, languages tend to be located in the more traditional universities in the UK, i.e. the Russell Group. The UCAS 2013 Application Cycle: End of Cycle Report  in December 2013 made for depressing reading and reported that students from independent schools made up 9.58% of applicants across all subjects compared with 28.34% for European Languages. A few years ago, my former University of Southampton colleague, John Canning published statistics on the social and background of language applicants in UK HE and these highlight the problems in a bit more detail and can be seen on his website.

So in answer to the question, ‘are languages elitist subjects?‘ Yes it would seem so. It is important to emphasise, however, that to some extent they always have been. Languages were traditionally taught in grammar schools and not to the whole cohort. And in the languages community we are still grappling with this aura of elitism that surrounds our subject.

A note on travels in the Gaeltacht

I’ve just returned from a trip to counties Mayo (Maigh Eo) and Sligo (Sligeach) on the west coast of Ireland.

It was my first visit to Sligo and I finally got to see the Lake Isle of Innisfree which so inspired Yeats’ beautiful poem.

P1000194My Dad’s family originate from the Gaeltacht area of Mayo but I hadn’t been for a long time and I’d forgotten that in the stunning setting of the Corraun Peninsula and Achill and amid the memorials to the Spanish Armada, so much of the signage is in Irish only.

P1000184Coming from this part of the world, my Grandfather was Irish speaking and as a linguist, I do feel that my own inability to speak any Irish at all does represent a loss of knowledge. So I am thinking about whether to do something about this and whether to have a go at the 1000 words challenge in my heritage language of Irish. I’ll update this blog with what I decide and how I get on.

Social capital and modern language initiatives in times of policy uncertainty

Social capital and modern language initiatives in times of policy uncertainty is an article that I wrote with Hannah Doughty and Heather McGuinness and which has just been published in the Scottish Languages Review. We examined examples of bonding, bridging and linking social capital with references to policy initiatives in England and Scotland (it’s a comparative piece). This is an open access article.

I also wrote a piece for The Tablet Let Nation speak unto Nation about the decline in language learning in the UK and about the steps being taken by the Routes into Languages programme to address the decline.

Guest Post: CALL to MALL: OpenExam linking the Past to the Future in Languages

By Peter Smith, Secretary of OpenExam

Barack Obama’s recent speech at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was a potent reminder of the importance and power of language. Young people can be in no doubt that verbal communication skills have the power to change the course of history and can make an impact on their lives. Today’s students are keen to acquire language skills but are also worldly and quick to understand the barriers to competence and fluency in a foreign language. In the 21st century it is the job of language teachers to remove those barriers and put their students in the driving seat.

The Language Teacher’s role
Today’s students are often ahead of their teachers in the realm of technology, but their greater facility with technology is not exploited with many current teaching methodologies. The traditional classroom with the teacher as the ‘sage on the stage’ is in decline. Traditional hierarchical and authoritative education methods are on the wane, giving way to enlightened styles of instruction, such as the ‘flipped classroom’, and more constructive evaluation procedures, such as formative assessment. Teachers are increasingly adopting a more oblique, understated, yet supporting role as a guide and coach in their students’ education.

The Technology

MALL (Mobile Assisted Language Learning) is fast becoming as accepted today as its
predecessor, CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) in the 1980s and 90s.
Geographical and physical borders are being transcended by technology. Apps may replace textbooks at some point in the future.

Recognition of Achievement
Success or failure in language learning is no longer wholly dependent on vocabulary acquisition, grammar learning and classroom tests. Students can use language and cultural knowledge as a means to communicate at their own level with others around the globe. Student portfolios, for example, demonstrate success, and provide a means of assessment using an asset-based approach. This replaces the old models of evaluation based on student deficiencies. The emphasis in schools is moving away from achieving grades. It is more on learning processes and self-improvement. Frequent, ongoing assessment allows for the fine-tuning of instruction and student focus on progress. By helping students to improve their metacognitive awareness of how they learn, teachers can help them acquire the skills they need in a rapidly changing world.

The Transition
These changes will not occur overnight. Accepted practice in education has always evolved over long periods. Whilst methods of teaching, learning and classroom assessment are developing pragmatically to embrace the new technologies, government departments, educational institutions and examination boards will not necessarily keep pace. Traditional summative examinations and qualification procedures will remain. A proper match between new classroom policies, the criteria of the examination room, and the demands of employers may well become harder to maintain in the future.


OpenExam is a teacher-led association of educators aiming to provide a mechanism for
matching the changes offered by the new technologies to the demands of existing examinations and qualifications. It provides a base for formative assessment together with online versions of current examinations. Teachers and students have access to a useful library of language examination practice examination materials for French and Spanish. Materials are regularly updated to the latest question styles. There are clearly defined assessment levels, recognition and assessment of collaboration between students across borders, and conversion of qualifications such as AP/IB/GCSE/iGCSE/A Levels/PreU/
Matric/SSCE. Materials can be used on iPads, Android, a web browser, within Schoolshape’s Language Lab software or in a web browser. They also include automated assessment (except for speaking and ‘free form’ answers), performance tracking, integration of speaking, listening, reading and writing, video assessment as required for practical skills, and emphasis on flexibility, accessibility, adaptability, accuracy of assessment and availability on phones and tablets.

Access to OpenExam
If you would like more information about joining OpenExam  or contributing materials, you can register your interest here.

Multilingual Britain Report

This short report from the British Academy provides an overview of multilingualism in British society and education and is a fascinating read.

The report notes the scarcity of data on multilingualism outside the school population. There is available census data from the 2011 England and Wales census which shows that 8% of the population reported having a ‘main’ language other than English, with Welsh and Polish occurring more frequently than anything else. Surveys of school children have, unsurprisingly, indicated that London schools are the most linguistically diverse.

The report makes the case for multilingualism, citing benefits for health, communication, business, academia and public services. It also challenges a perceived hierarchy of bilingualism in which higher status is attached to languages which are formally learned as opposed to languages which are acquired in the home.

The educational context in England, Scotland and Wales is briefly outlined; language learning and teaching are discussed and the lack of a language education strategy in England is highlighted. Rather depressingly for those of us who research language learning motivation, the report states that:

‘there is little research into the attitudes of UK language learners’ (p. 5).

This is an interesting summary document – definitely worth a read

Language World 2013

I’ll be at Language World 2013 at Nottingham Trent University on Friday 22 March and will be staffing the Routes into Languages exhibition stand with my LLAS colleague, Erika Corradini and the Routes East Midlands team. We’re looking forward to letting delegates know about the work of Routes and we’ll also be giving away lots of free resources.

I’ll also be hoping to pop in to a few of the sessions. Ross Cooper’s presentation on improving memory and Matt Davis’ on language learning and the brain both sound particularly fascinating. I’ll be looking for a few tips that I can use in my own language learning as I’m doing evening classes in Spanish. Other talks of interest are Drama, differentiation and meaning (Liz Black) and Making the most of Skype – bringing the world into your classroom (Bertram Richter and Inmaculada Morris). Both of these look to be about helping to create a motivational purpose for speaking, which is a research interest of mine. David Crystal is bound to be good too. Overall, it looks like a great programme and should be a really enjoyable event.