Thursday, 26 September 2013

Languages are more useful than science

There was a time when Latin ruled the roost in the school curriculum. Maths was always up there too, then science came along. In recent times STEM subjects have been carrying the highest prestige, partly because there is a shortage of mathematicians, scientists and engineers, partly because they are hard subjects and partly because, well, they just are - it's a fashion.

I used to tell my classes that for most of them it was far more likely that would use their French sometimes in the future than they would use their maths (anything, that is, beyond basic arithmetic, fractions, percentages and graphs), science, history or geogrpahy. So I was glad to read that Gary Lineker (never had a yellow card) himself is saying the very same thing. This is what he said to the TES:

 “Personally, I look at what we have to study at school and some subjects like science might help at some point in your life for a percentage of people, but the learning of languages, for me, will always be helpful for the vast majority at some stage in their life.”

He added:
“There is no question in my mind when you speak someone else’s language, certainly in their country, they’re normally pretty appreciative of the fact. That’s my personal experience. Plus, it gives you a lot of self esteem if you can converse with people abroad, which is an important thing and perhaps shows where chemistry and physics may not help the majority of people but learning a language will.”

Well said Gary and it's a line teachers should easily be able to sell to most of their classes.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

How to provide the best for a bilingual child in your class

You, like me, may have had to handle the situation where you have a bilingual child in your MFL class. They are probably fluent orally, have excellent listening and reading skills, but varying degrees of written skill. What can you do to make the most of their existing aptitude?

If they are there from the start of Y7 (first year of secondary schooling), then it may be wise to keep them in the classroom with their peers. They are settling in socially, making friends and may feel cut off if you send them elsewhere to study. If they are already established at the school, it may make sense to have them do the work you set elsewhere, as they may prefer silence, access to books or a computer. You could have a weekly meeting time, perhaps with the regular class to keep tabs on their work.

Most students are enthused by the prospect of taking exams early. Consult with the child and his or her parents to see if this will be motivational. GCSE could be done by the end of Y8, with the prospect of AS and A2 level by the end of Y11. You could consider an alternative programme such as Asset Languages, but these exams have less kudos than GCSE. A bilingual child will fly through GCSE, but will need specific guidance on controlled assessment and other examination techniques. Maybe you could pair up an A2 student with them to help and save you time. Make sure they are mature enough to handle A-level topics.

Once you have talked things through with your students and established what work they might benefit from, there is a range of possibilities (the suggested links are all on the Interactive Links page of
  • Provide texts with exercises to do (A-level standard).
  • Provide a menu of challenging online interactive grammar/reading tasks from sites such as Languagesonline, le-précepteur, Le Point du FLE and A vos plumes.
  • Suggest novels or non-fiction to read according to their existing interest and maturity. The student could write a book review or you could adapt existing resources you have used with A-level students.
  • Provide challenging sources of listening which will broaden their range and interests. Better to provide some structure to the task than just leaving the student to browse. Good sites include: Exercices de Français pour Etrangers, FranceTV Education, Universcience and Euronews.
  • Involve the student with the rest of the class. They could help with pairwork, give easy presentations, help you present dialogues like an assistant. There is no doubt that there is some advantage in your class hearing one of their peers speaking the foreign language.
  • The student might enjoy helping individual students with their work, even older ones. This would be good for their self-esteem, provide a useful service and be good experience for the bilingual student.
  • You could suggest that the student writes a blog for the rest of the class and their family to follow. This is really easy to set up with Blogger and you could even assess their work if you wanted to formalise things a bit.
  • You could set translation sentences or passages to do, both English-French and French-English.
  • You could attempt to find them an e-pal or traditional penpal, if they do not already have Facebook friends who speak the foreign language.
So all in all, there should be little problem finding a variety of interesting and challenging things for your bilingual pupil to do. They might also provide an opportunity for you and your colleagues to practise their skills.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

So what about iPads for MFL?

Ipads are being deployed in vast numbers, it seems, across the nation's schools. How useful are they to MFL learners and teachers?

The first question to ask is what do we need our technology for? In MFL we are aiming to improve the four skills. Anything which can aid us in developing pupils' comprehension, grammatical command, vocabulary knowledge and oral proficiency should be welcomed if it can be afforded.

An ICT room of PCs fulfills many needs and can even be turned into a language lab for oral practice, but in schools it is not always easy to book time when you want it and you have to move classes around. The enormous attraction of the tablet is its portability, so there are certainly advantages to having it handy for instant listening/streamed video work, interactive grammar and vocabulary work. There's no need to book a room, no need to compete with other subjects for computer time.

One issue with the iPad, of course, is that it will not display any content in Flash and will not run all Hot Potato exercises successfully. With this in mind, I wonder how many schools have opted for Android devices.

It is also the case that publishers are now bringing out subject-specific resources for the ipad, for example Nelson-Thornes have just released topic based units of work downloadable from the iTunes store. I cannot vouch for the quality of these.

Practicalities are bound to be a concern. What if a pupil's iPad has no charge? What if it doesn't work? What if they have forgotten it? Well, I guess those issues arise in a computer room and you get by with sharing. Nor do I think we should ignore the environmental issue of electricity consumption with greater use of portable devices. In this regard, at least the iPad consumes a good deal less electricity than a traditional PC.

So, in sum, do we need iPads? Probably not. Would they (do they) add something to the MFL classroom? Almost certainly.

If I were in a position to be designing a departmental policy on iPad use, I would try to focus on using them for listening (preferably with video), either using interactive sites or added worksheets (such as the ones I have been making for I would also stress their use for developing grammatical and comprehension skill via sites such as MYLO, Languagesonline, Audio Lingua the Carmen Vera Perez site and Bonjour de France. Overall I would see the tablet as a consumption tool more than a production tool. I would be a little wary of creative apps which pupils may fritter time away on.

For a more detailed assessment of iPads in the MFL classroom from someone who knows the field really well and trains people around the world, look at Joe dale's blog here.

For a list of apps for the iPad, you might find this useful, but this field will be changing rapidly.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

European Day of Languages assembly talk

I did this assembly talk a few years ago. Feel free to use it or adapt it.

Today is officially the European Day of Languages.

Here is a poem by Olivia McMahon

Learning a language

Is like doing a jigsaw puzzle

Of a million pieces

With a picture that keeps changing.

It's like getting lost in a foreign city without a map.

It's like playing tennis without a ball,

like being an ant in a field of grasshoppers.

It's like being an acrobat with a broken leg,

An actor without a script,

A carpenter without a saw,

A storyteller without a middle or an end.

 But then gradually

It's like being out in the early morning

with the mists lifting.

It's like a chink of light under a door,

like finding the glove you were looking for,

Catching the train you thought you were going to miss,

Getting an unlooked-for present,

Exchanging a smile.

And then one day it's like riding a bicycle

Very fast downhill.


How many languages are there in the world? Well, it’s hard to know for sure because most languages are not written down and most are spoken by small numbers of people living in remote parts of the globe, for example tribes in the Amazon jungle. The best estimate we have is nearly 7000, of which nearly half are in danger of extinction.   7000 is a lot of languages and each one is well adapted to the culture which uses it.

As for the most widely spoken languages in the world, this depends on how you count up.  But if you just measure people who speak a language as their native tongue: one table suggests that the top 10 are: Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, Bengali, Malay and French. By the way, Chinese is a long way ahead with about a billion speakers.

However, if you add up the native speakers with those who speak a second language, the table changes.  The top ten are: Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian, French, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese and Bengali.

If you then look at the number of countries where languages are spoken the top five are: English, French, Arabic, Spanish and Russian.

Now, a calculation has been made as to the most important languages based on number of speakers, the countries the languages are spoken in, economic influence and prestige, for example the influence of the literature in the language. The top five come out as:  English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. I suspect Chinese will soon figure in that list.

Now, why bother to learn a language if English is the most important language in the world?

Here are ten reasons, with the most important left to the end.

1.            When you travel abroad, for example on holiday, you’ll be able to talk with people who can’t speak English. This shows courtesy and respect. remember that only about 5% of the world population speak English. It’s a myth that you don’t have to learn other languages because everyone speaks English anyway.
2.            You may need a foreign language for your job. By the way, students with languages find it easier to get jobs than students with almost any other training.
3.            You may just enjoy learning a language – using the sounds, working out rules and so on
4.            It will make you seem clever. People seem to be impressed when you can speak more than one language.  On the other hand, you can feel hopeless when you can’t speak another person’s language.
5.            You can have secret conversations which other people don’t understand
6.            Research shows that learning a language can make you better at learning other subjects.
7.            You can watch films and read in another language.
8.            It helps you learn about other cultures.  It’s hard to really get to know another country and people unless you understand their language.
9.            It makes you understand your own language better.
10.         Finally – and the most important – when you learn another language not only do you learn about the other country, but it also makes you look at your own country in a different way; it probably makes you a more tolerant person; it teaches you to listen to others, communicate better and it broadens your horizons.  Someone once said that to learn another language is to learn another vision of life.  You might not be thinking that as you do your French, German or Latin homework, but as a citizen of Europe and the world, perhaps learning language, although it can be quite hard, is not a bad thing at all. The poem by Olivia McMahon said that learning a language is like being lost in a foreign city, but if you work at it for a long time it becomes, as she put it, like riding a bike downhill.

Online shopping for vocabulary acquisition

A sure fire winner of a lesson is when you take a class into the computer room to do an online shopping exercise. Our approach was to give our Year 8s (near beginners) a grocery shopping list in English, with a column to complete in French, a quantity to buy and the cost to find. We would use this task near the end of a sequence on food shopping so that pupils are already quite familiar with the vocabulary.

You can tell the class to find the best match possible (because you can never guarantee your worksheet will be up to date) and to get the best value produce.

Tell the class to open a second window with a dictionary like so they can look up meanings quickly.

Depending on the speed of your class, this exercise could take between 40 and 90 minutes. Faster workers can spend more time browsing and you can add an element of competition by giving individuals the challenge of producing the cheapest bill. Incidentally, I would set this as an individual task if facilities allow it.

There is a range of grocery shopping sites; we happened to find easy to search, either by individual item or by browsing aisles. Most pupils tend to use the search box once they have checked the French vocabulary (this makes them write accurately).

The original of the sheet below is an Excel file in the Y8 of I am copying it below:

Apples (Golden)           














Cabbage (green)









1 paquet

Beef (entrecôte)




Lamb (côtelettes)


Jam (Bonne Maman)


Tin of apricots


Ketchup (Amora)


Green olives (whole)

1 pot

Olive oil (Auchan)

1 litre

Eggs (cheapest)


Butter (salted – Auchan) 


Milk (semi-skimmed)

2 litres

Camembert (cheapest)


Yogurt (with fruit bits)


Pâté (foie gras)



10 x 40g

Cider (cheapest)

1 litre

Water (Perrier)

1 litre



Crisps (cheapest)