IWTYAL 123: How can we change language education in schools?

Kevin asks: “School put me off languages. How can we make sure that doesn’t happen to other kids?”

In this episode:

  • I’m joined by special guest Lindsay Dow!
  • How languages are taught in school
  • What motivates kids to learn languages
  • How teachers can influence their students’ experience
  • Tips for teachers

Resources mentioned in this episode:

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

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  • João Lucas

    Do you podcast have transcript? I don’t find it out.

    • I don’t. It’s expensive to produce, but I’m looking into it, because I know it would be a great resource for everyone.

  • dandiprat

    Sadly, I don’t think language education can be one size fits all. I think some students (and perhaps some languages) are better suited to a communicative format while others are better adapted to a comprehensible input dynamic. For students of Spanish in the United States there are so many immigrants who speak Spanish here it might be better to get them speaking Spanish from the outset. On the other hand, for Japanese it seems a large number are interested in the culture popular or otherwise so it might be good to get them practicing listening and reading primarily. For me, I practice listening and reading as much as possible, particularly listening.

    • You’re absolutely right to point out there’s a difference between “second” and “foreign” language education. Didn’t consider that in our discussion.

    • Absolutely right that it can’t be one size fits all – which I guess is part of the reason it’s so tricky to inspire a full class of 30 students! Great points. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Kevin Richardson

    Huge thanks to Olly and Lindsay (I’ve watched some of your videos – so knew who you were the moment Olly introduced you) for getting this conversation started.

    Definitely think Steve Kaufman makes a salient point. I also think it’s fair to say that these days, I’m passionate about learning languages … and I certainly wasn’t when I was 13 years old. Mind you, that’s hardly surprising since all that seemed to happen would be another dull story of Misseur Lafyette cycling to the supermarche to buy croissants and a baguette … and I couldn’t have cared less about that. I was more interested in asking the French teacher how to say, “take your baguette and shove it up your arse Mr. Lafyette!” … you know, when you’re being taught stuff you have no interest in, can’t see the need for it … the very least they could do would be to teach you how to express your disdain for it!

    School was like being on a long haul flight to nowhere and being offered “Chicken or Fish?” (French or German) … when I had no idea where I was going and even worse … why was I going anywhere … other than the small chance of running into Mr. Lafyette in a supermarche and being ill equipped to tell him where he could shove his baguette.

    Now, I haven’t got it all figured out … yet … but thanks to your podcast, you’ve given me plenty to think about. What I was thinking was that, if I designed the curriculum … it wouldn’t start by blindly saying, “Think of a language you want to learn” … it would start with a project to find an activity in a country that you can’t do in your native language. Like your example of, ok … I like comics … how about manga … is that interesting … yep … ok … how about exploring Japanese … what about wild animals in Kenya … ok … learn the animal names in swahili … still interested … what would you need to say on safari … etc.

    I guess the bottom line is this; I think many kids learn to hate language learning at a young age … and it puts them off long term. I feel fortunate to have discovered an interest in languages at the age of 43ish … yet, when I wanted to learn how to learn a language … what I learned at school wasn’t much use (the world wide web didn’t exist then!) … surely these days, a major part of language education should be learning how to learn a language online … and the teacher’s role is simply to support the student and act as a guide.

    • Great to hear your thoughts, Kevin. I’m waiting with baited breath to see where this mission of yours takes you!

      • Kevin Richardson

        Certainly will … one of the most encouraging things, is that from time to time, I’ll have a Japanese kid laughing their way to learning English and I’ll walk home thinking, “OK, I’m already changing the world a little bit already”. Last week I taught a class of twenty kindergarten kids … the school runs a summer “Let’s Play English” group … my brief … just make some games to learn, colours, animals, numbers … that sort of thing. Little did they know I’d create a punk band called the Animals where I had the kids air guitaring to a Japanese punk band that sing in English … I bought some coloured sponge animal capsules from a 100 yen shop the night before … so I handed out these coloured capsules to the kids … and we had to guess what animal we’d grow when we put the capsules in a glass of water … then once we’d grown our animals, we then had to hop, walk, run, swim like each of the animals … ending up with air guitaring in the style of an animal … we finished by having an idol competition try out … and formed a band consisting of a koala vocalist hugging the microphone, octopus drummer, gorilla on bass and a monkey guitarist! After the lesson I saw the kids continuing to practice their animal bands in the playground … smiled to myself and thought, “Yeah … they learned a little bit of English … but more importantly, they had so much fun that they wanted to continue afterwards”.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kevin! 🙂 I agree with you that it’s such a huge thing to try and design the curriculum and I certainly wouldn’t want the job to myself! I like your idea of taking things gently forward following on from our example in the podcast – I mean the learning animals in Swahili followed by ‘still interested?’. Great idea to ease things in.

      I remember when I worked in secondary schools, and in fact even when I was at school, we had a weekly or fortnightly session in the computer room! Maybe those schools were just forward-thinking but I’d like to think the language classroom is embracing technology. Check out the work of Joe Dale if you’re interested to learn more on this topic. 🙂

      • Kevin Richardson

        Thanks LIndsay. I just read an article by Joe Dale – hadn’t heard of him before, but like the cut of his jib! I’m doing an MA in Online and Distance Education with the OU (I used to be the technical lead in the Multimedia Unit of the University of Law – but got hooked on language learning and came out to Japan a couple of years ago to get some experience teaching English). One thing you said really made me think … you’re absolutely right … I’ve become totally passionate about language learning … and when I think about so many of my friends from school in the UK, it never dawns on me that they wouldn’t be interested in language learning! Saying that, I think when I’m teaching English in Japan, having had such an uninspiring time learning French at secondary school in the UK – it kind of fires me up to make my English lessons all about finding something fun to get the kids involved with. At the moment, Pokemon-Go is huge (as it is everywhere in the world) … I made a cardboard iPad and decided to wander around the streets playing, “Kanji-Go” … kids ask me what I’m doing … and I say that I’m playing “Kanji-Go” … gotta catch em all … and they follow me around asking me what the kanji mean in English …. he he he … brilliant … works for me learning the kanji readings in Japanese … works for the Japanese kids who are also learning kanji and now learning what the kanji mean in English! I think I might develop this idea further in the future … maybe create an app and write about it post MA. As you guys were saying, getting some qualifications and experience that will give me a voice with government departments seems like the best way to make the biggest difference in changing language education in schools. Though, as one of my friends in the domain of Technology Enhanced-Learning reminded me … actually, if I just create beautiful learning experiences which produce amazing results … I’m changing the world anyway … and governments might take notice 🙂

        • Ahh so cool you’re doing that MA with the OU! I’m a huge fan of the OU (as you may have guessed if you’ve ever read my blog…!) and I’ve considered that.

          Also – such a good point about incorporating modern trends such as Pokemon Go and I love what you say about bad lessons at school inspiring you to make yours good – I feel the same. 🙂

  • Pete G

    Great episode both! One that really got me thinking, but there’s no simple solution.

    I was lucky enough to be raised bilingually (Welsh and English) and although I took it for granted when I was a kid and equally was uninspired by language lessons at school, I feel that it’s played a big part in my appreciation of languages and my motivation to learn my third language (Portuguese). So, you could argue that culture has a big part to play in my making children aware of the importance of language.

    Welsh speakers are generally very proud and protective of their language and it’s a huge part of our identity. I don’t think English speakers have this feeling towards English as it’s so commonly spoken.

    • Thanks for your comment, Pete. I think you make a great point about English being so commonly spoken and therefore not quite feeling that identity towards language and almost taking it for granted. As an example, I’m a volunteer for Wikitongues and recently we were asked for our birthdays and our language so that we can all wish each other happy birthday in our native language. My response? “Here’s my birthday and I’m English which is kind of boring so just pick any language!”

      I guess that proves what you’re saying…! 🙂

      • Pete G

        Haha unfortunately it probably does. I can’t remember which one of you mentioned in the episode about children learning English through other subjects but that is exaclty how we learned both languages at primary school. Something I didn’t realise until I was older and some friends in England were fascinated about how we had time to study everything twice… of course, we didn’t!

    • I noticed a similar dynamic recently in Montreal, where most locals are bilingual French and English, but clearly feel very protective towards French. The strength of the culture there was striking, and it made me wonder whether language influences culture, or culture influences language… probably both directions!

      • Pete G

        Kinda like the chicken and the egg… One can’t exist without the other 😀

  • Artie Duncanson

    In your discussion the two of you brought up one thing I think is completely lacking in schools, student input. I was working at a human trafficking shelter in Thailand and the girls we cared for frequently complained that their school lessons were “stupid,” and when I’d sit down with them and look it over, I couldn’t have agreed more. The things they were being taught would not have much use in their day to day life. So I made a deal with many of the students, I would do their pointless (and sometimes difficult) English assignments, and they would convince one more friend of theirs to attend private English lessons with me, and I would let them tell me what they wanted to learn, and work on those topics with them.
    Just listening to the students language desires changed the entire learning dynamics, and they learned English with renewed fervor. It’s so unfortunate that, like you mentioned in the podcast, schools teach to the test instead of to the desires of the children. It’s THEIR education, isn’t it? I’d like to see them have far more say in how they are educated. Thanks for bringing up the lack of child input, maybe more time can be spent discussing this matter in a future podcast.

    • Thanks for your comment and for sharing your story. I’m sure those kids don’t know how lucky they are to have you as a teacher!

      I suppose the fundamental problem with student input is that it takes a skilled teacher to manage, and the nature of the input is unknown. How can that be developed into a reliable, repeatable, scalable curriculum?

      • Artie Duncanson

        Hmmm, you’re probably correct in identifying the fundamental problem with student input, but only if we presume that language learning in the school environment has to be conducted in the manner it currently is done. If I recall correctly, I think Lindsay said that in each class there are as many ways to teach students as there are students (I’m sorry if I attributed something you didn’t say to you Lindsay). If that’s true, which I believe, then developing repeatable, scalable curricula isn’t necessary, right? The teachers job, if the teacher is even necessary, would be nothing more than a guide and mentor the students can seek help from in their own attempts to learn a language.
        Of course even if that is the proper means of helping students learn foreign languages, that’s impossible as long as standardized testing exists.

        • Yes, but the real difficulty is providing that level of individual attention in a class of 30 students.