The teaching of languages

The intelligent teaching of languages can address a number of key issues within the curriculum, says former headmaster John Claughton

We all agree, I suggest, that the teaching of languages is a Good Thing and the learning of languages is an Even Better Thing. We might all agree on this, but that doesn’t mean that the teaching, or learning, of languages in schools, whether primary or secondary, state or independent, is actually working.

The annual British Council Language Trends survey has been gloomier, year by year, about the teaching of languages from primary to university, pointing to the lack of time and expertise available in junior schools, the massive variety of languages taught in different schools and the lack of coherence in transition from primary to secondary which this breeds, and the steady decline in GCSE and A-level numbers.

It’s not an easy read. Neither is Crime and Punishment, but it has to be done.

The 2021 survey, released in early July, painted an even darker picture in the times of pandemic, viz:

  • Language teaching was suspended at one in five primary schools in January 2021.
  • In 53% of primary schools in England, language teaching was discontinued during the first national lockdown from March to June 2020. During this time in these schools, there was no online teaching and pupils were not provided with work for languages. For those 47% of schools which did continue to teach languages, only 5% taught live.


So, the survey’s conclusion could not be starker: “These data” – I’m impressed that data gets its due honour as a neuter plural noun – “point to the fact that languages remain a marginal subject which many primary schools find challenging to deliver alongside manifold competing demands. The pandemic has exacerbated this.”

In the end, the pandemic has merely shown the truth of what junior schools think about languages: “By their deeds shall ye know them.”

Issues with language teaching

Of course, many independent prep schools will be able to argue proudly their difference from this national trend, but I would argue that, even in the best establishments, problems remain. Here are a few:

  • It is not always easy to find the expertise or the timetable time to provide a coherent and effective language course when there are so many other demands – educational and financial.
  • There is a wide diversity in approaches:
    – Carousels always sound jolly but do they go anywhere?
    – Do we still dwell in a world of rote learning and recital of endings – ‘that strong starch of unexplained rules and disconnected facts’ which George Eliot describes in Daniel Deronda – or are we simply teaching vocabulary and phrases for non-existent future conversations?
  • Transition, whether at 11 or 13, to senior school remains a muddle. Very often senior schools go back to Old Kent Road in their language journey, rendering pointless all that has gone before; some junior and senior independent schools find themselves deliberately teaching a different language in their junior schools precisely so that they do not disadvantage the pupils who join their school in Year 7.


And yet – and here is the paradox – all this gathering darkness is happening at a time when our pupils have never had greater linguistic expertise: 20% of pupils in junior schools in this country are designated as EAL, but that must mean that they are fluent speakers of another language.

In 10 years as a head of one of the most ethnically and socially diverse independent schools in the country, I never asked the question. And I even taught Year 7 Latin.

So, from beyond the grave, I did ask a few weeks ago: of the 52 Year 7 boys in the grand survey which took 10 minutes, 25 were bilingual, they spoke 13 different languages, four European, six South Asian, three Far Eastern – and, in addition to all that, seven of them could read Arabic.

I’d politely suggest that you stop reading this article and conduct such a survey – now – or, at least on the first day of term.

Purpose of language teaching

If you are foolish enough to ignore my clear instructions, I will reward you with an answer to the question you want to ask: is there an elsewhere?

Well, I believe there is and that elsewhere is formed by putting together the multilingual truth of the previous paragraph with the explicit purpose of language teaching as defined by the Department of Education – an unlikely compound, I admit.

That purpose, which has been in place since 2004, is to ignite a passion for language learning and to lay foundations on which the teaching of different languages can be built at secondary schools.

Since this is what they want, and since it seems that there isn’t much evidence either of passion or foundations at the moment, we could start all over again – a tabula rasa, as we say. Instead of teaching a single language, or even little bits of a few languages, why not create a course about languages, how they work, where they came from, and how they are similar and different?

The possibilities are endless: why are the Boston Celtics – and Celtic FC – named after a language? Why is Loughborough pronounced in such a ridiculous way? Do we know more German than we realise? Why are the days of the week so random? Why does it turn out that Latin and Greek are actually useful for understanding other languages? Why are one to 10 in Welsh so similar to one to 10 in Punjabi? And did you know that Punjab is related to the Greek for five and the Latin for water? I could go on.

It should generate curiosity and understanding rather than weariness; it should enable pupils to bring their own linguistic history into the classroom rather than leave it outside

The advantages of all this seem ‘bleeding obvious’ to me for a wide variety of reasons. It should generate curiosity and understanding rather than weariness; it should enable pupils to bring their own linguistic history into the classroom rather than leave it outside; it should help to create links with history and geography and English and RS and science and lead to interesting questions about migration and empire, cultural differences and similarities.

It could also be taught by teachers who are not necessarily trained in modern languages. After all, the boys and girls are likely to do most of the work. And this could produce a long-term passion and lay foundations for future study.

And now, dear reader, you are bound to say, “Well, that’s all fine and dandy” – or words to that effect – “but where am I going to find the time to do this?”

“Trip no further, pretty sweeting.” Or, in the words of Blue Peter, if you remember that, “Here’s one I made earlier” – or rather here’s one several people from Norwich School and Cheadle Hulme and I have made earlier.

It’s called The World of Languages and Languages of the World, or WoLLoW for short, which is why it has a 2nd millennium BC faience hippo as its logo. It’s free and you can do what you like with it – and even join in yourself.

John Claughton was chief master at King Edward’s School in Birmingham for 10 years.

The World of Languages and Languages of the World is a curriculum package for primary and secondary schools teaching children the history, culture and development of all languages and how they have shaped our lives.

1 Comment
  • Emma Bell

    Thank you I enjoyed reading this, as a Modern Languages graduate and someone keen to share their love of languages I’d love to get involved. I am in Plymouth teaching Spanish in primary (all year groups).

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