There has been an ongoing debate in the UK about the teaching of foreign languages. On one hand the government has funded and required language teaching only at Key stage 3 (ages 12 to 16). But on the other hand the UK laments that it’s at the bottom of the league table within Europe for languages taught.
Studies released this year show that only 9% of pupils continue studying French at A level after completing their French GCSE. Probably because you get out what you put in. “We give only half the time to language teaching that they do in continental Europe”, said Richard Hudson, Professor Emeritus in Linguistics at University College London. Thankfully there is new legislation next year that supports teaching languages at Primary school, which is when most studies say is the best time to start because our younger brains are more able to acquire new language skills.
I’ve been away for a week with my sister, my 20 year old niece and her 20 year old friend to the south of France and it was exhausting but fun. It’s especially fun to take young adults who have never
been to Europe (or overseas to speak of) abroad for the first time. My niece who took French throughout her high school years was timid at first about using her shaky French but after hearing me use even more shaky Italian and German as the situations required, she realised that when travelling abroad that trying to use even rusty foreign languages is much more fun when there’s not a teacher assessing you or friends ready to snigger at your mistakes. Indeed, the main goal during travel is to get to a point of mutual understanding … about the cost of a bunch of tomatoes or the bill for dinner or directions to the beach. It doesn’t matter if your grammar is perfect or that you are speaking in ‘Frenglish’ accompanied by what you hope are universally understood symbolic hand gestures. Just get the job done. By the end of the trip she was having quite long, natural and entirely voluntary Frenglish conversations with our local shopkeeper without batting an eye. I call that a successful trip.
Living abroad takes this experience to the next step and allows you not just to be understood verbally but to understand culturally your surroundings and your hosts. And just like when trying to speak a foreign language for the first time, you are bound to make some gaffes. It’s part of the territory. And nothing helps you learn more quickly than when you recognise that awkward expression on someone’s face when you have inadvertently said something funny/insulting/irreverent or rude… but didn’t know it. Making mistakes is part of the journey and learning from them makes you realise just how big and complex is this world we live in.
So molto bene to the UK government for putting more of a focus on language teaching at young ages, even at a time of austerity. As the world becomes ever more connected, having an understanding of the language if not the diverse culture of our neighbours is essential to success.
It’s always hard to admit you are wrong, well certainly for me. Having been to the COBIS conference I was really happy to find that indeed, it has changed and is welcoming and useful. I met Head Teachers from Cairo, the Netherlands and Kazakhstan, School Board members from Brazil and Belgium and many more. Ok, I can admit it- I was wrong.
One of the themes of the conference was about putting internationalism into the fabric of every school. It may seem like an easy thing, but it’s not.
There are many kinds of international schools – from those that serve expatriate abroad to those that serve host nationals who want their children to have an international education and even to state schools with international type streams. There is no one type of international school, even though we all probably have one picture in our minds of what that looks like. So be prepared to change your mind and throw out the rule book
Along these lines, I got into a debate at the conference around the question of “‘what is an international school”. Again, seems simple but it’s not. For instance, is a state school in the US teaching American children using the International Baccalaureate curriculum an international school? What about a school in Spain teaching the Spanish curriculum to Spanish children but partly in English? What about a school using the UK curriculum in Egypt but teaching exclusively Egyptian children with Egyptian teachers? It’s not easy.
When you enter the world of international teaching, you must be prepared to change your mind. About almost everything. International teaching will challenge your interpretation of the world and leave you a more enlightened person but it’s not an easy path for those who think they know it all and are not prepared to consider that they are, indeed, misinformed. Yet this is the beauty of travelling the world. You get to see things through a lens you could have never accessed at home.
So if you can admit you are sometimes wrong, like I was wrong about the COBIS conference this past week, then perhaps you have what it takes to teach and travel.
I’m attending the COBIS (Council of British Overseas schools) conference in London on Sunday and Monday, for the first time in about 10 years.
I attended many years ago, but stopped going because I found it unhelpful…. and because it was painfully stuffy, bordering on pompous and I felt distinctly unwelcome. You see, as a born and bred American, even though I’ve lived in the UK for 12 years, I don’t do stuffy or pompous very well. Probably because I don’t know where I sit in the hierarchy of pompousity – I can’t see the rungs on the ladder. I’m somehow selectively blind to them by birth and rearing in American society which aspires to be the self made man with humble roots rather than to be the entitled son of a Baronet. Don’t get me wrong- I don’t talk loudly on trains or in public and don’t switch knife and fork when eating (anymore) – I’ve assimilated somewhat. But one can only go so far in a decade. I draw the line at stuffy.
This unfortunate blind spot of mine makes for very awkward social situations where I’m sure I’m doing something wrong or at least not what’s expected of me, but I don’t know what that thing is so there’s no way to correct it. Alas, this is the life of an expatriate abroad. Always stumbling around like Mr Magoo but hopefully, like him, landing upright and with my martini intact.
Now I’ve been told on good authority that COBIS has changed and become more informational and less painful under its new leader, so I’m giving it another go with high hopes. Indeed, many formerly stuffy British institutions are letting their stuff hang out a bit more nowadays because that’s what the situation demands. An article in the Economist HERE, featuring a friend of mine, Simon Lucas from EC Harris, points out that in the race to open up overseas schools many veddy veddy British schools such as Dulwich and Harrow have had to temper their stuffy Britishness to an extent in order to comply with overseas customs and, in some cases, laws.
Don’t get me wrong – I really admire the British with their love of order, tradition and history. I now know how to properly say Southwark (Suth-Ark) and oregano (OR-eh-GAAAH-no) and can queue like nobody’s business. But I’m glad they are leaving the downsides of tradition behind when it’s appropriate and opening their lovely doors to half-blind Mr Magoo’s like me.