LAGB Autumn Meeting 2001

University of Reading

‘Linguistics at School’ Session, Wednesday 5 September:

Why are the British such poor language learners?

Pedagogic issues

Rosamond Mitchell

University of Southampton


This presentation will begin by reviewing the recent history of MFLs within the school curriculum in England and Wales (see Hawkins ed 1997). Using examples such as the evolution of MFLs in primary school (Burstall 1974; NACELL 2001), it will be argued that public/ government attitudes and policy concerning language learning in school are intimately connected with broader political and social movements (the status of English as international lingua franca on the one hand, and on the other, the evolution of relations with the European Union).

The school curriculum will then be examined more closely, using documents such as the current National Curriculum and sample GCSE syllabuses (DfEE/QCA 1999; Edexcel 2000; OCR 2000). The prolonged absence of a serious rationale for National Curriculum MFLs will be noted, and the format of the present foundation curriculum for MFLs will be explained as the product of a number of factors, including the 1980s "Languages for All" movement, the contemporaneous rise of the ‘communicative approach’ to language teaching, and the vocationally oriented syllabus models promoted by the Council of Europe (2000).

It is recognised by many studies and commentators that the present MFLs curriculum has proved disappointing as the realisation of the "Languages for All" vision, both in terms of learner motivation, and language learning outcomes achieved (e.g. Dobson 1998). A critique of this curriculum will be presented, both in terms of its instrumental content and its ‘functionalist’ pedagogic approach. A range of proposals for curriculum and pedagogic reform will be reviewed and evaluated (see e.g. QCA 2000, various papers in Green, ed 2000, and sample CILT Pathfinders and other methodological publications, e.g. Harris et al 2000, Jones 2001, McLachlan 2001). The need for a coherent underpinning rationale for MFLs learning in a 21st century English-speaking environment will however be stressed, and some contemporary attempts will also be evaluated (Nuffield Languages Inquiry 2000; Action Group for Languages n.d.)

The next section of the presentation will examine the learning outcomes achieved for languages in British schools, and investigate the extent to which improvements in pedagogy might be expected to lead to a step change in language achievement, as compared with a range of other factors (such as time and resources available, teacher supply, learner mobility and international contact…).

Finally, the presentation will conclude with a number of suggestions as to how linguists and applied linguists could contribute to the promotion of high quality MFLs experiences and achievement in British schools. These will include:


Action Group for Languages n.d. Citizens of a Multilingual World Rationale: Why are languages important? Scottish Executive.

Brown, K 2000 ‘Conclusion: creative thinking about a new modern languages pedagogy.’ In Green, S ed 2000: 183-94.

Burstall C et al 1974 Primary French in the Balance. NFER.

CILT 2001 CILT Direct Languages Yearbook. CILT.

Council of Europe/ Council for Cultural Cooperation Education Committee 2001 Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment. Cambridge University Press.

Coyle, D 2000 ‘Meeting the challenge: developing the 3Cs curriculum’. In Green, S ed 2000: 158-82.

DfEE/QCA 1999 Modern Foreign Languages: The National Curriculum for England. The Stationery Office.

Dobson, A 1998 MFL Inspected: Reflections on inspection findings 1996-7. CILT.

Edexcel 2000 Edexcel GCSE in French (1226): Specification for first examination 2003. Edexcel Foundation.

Green, S ed 2000 New Perspectives on Teaching and Learning Modern Languages. Multilingual Matters.

Harris, V et al 2001 Something to Say? Promoting spontaneous classroom talk. CILT.

Hawkins, E ed 1996 Thirty Years of Language Teaching. CILT.

Jones, B 2001 Developing Learning Strategies. Advanced Pathfinder 2. CILT.

McLachlan, A 2001. Advancing Oral Skills. Advanced Pathfinder 1. CILT.

Moys A ed 1998 Where Are We Going with Languages? Nuffield Foundation.

National Advisory Centre on Early Language Learning 2001 <>

Nuffield Languages Inquiry 2000 Languages: The next generation. The Nuffield Foundation.

Oxford Cambridge & RSA Examinations (OCR) 2000 OCR GCSE in French, German, Gujarati and Spanish. OCR.

QCA 2000 Modern Foreign Languages: A scheme of work for Key Stage 3. QCA/ DfEE.