Making languages cool: motivating teenaged language learners

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In recent years there has been widespread concern about the alarming decline in take-up of languages at GCSE since the subject was announced as optional in 2002. In 2001, 78% of English teenagers took a language at GCSE; by 2008 this had dropped to just 44%. 

However, despite the apparent bleakness of the situation, language departments and senior leadership in schools across the country are becoming increasingly aware of the international importance of languages both in business and social situations. As a result, they are putting a huge amount of energy into finding innovative ways of bringing languages to life for pupils. CILT’s 2008 Languages Trends Survey on languages in the secondary school showed that a third of English maintained schools have introduced new courses, more languages and teaching approaches and alternative accreditation to GCSE.  This has led to an improvement in attitudes and take-up amongst KS4 pupils as a result.

Teachers looking to improve take-up of languages often struggle to convince teenagers to take their subject when languages regularly come up against options which seem more attractive. The main reasons teenagers give for not choosing a language at GCSE are that languages are a ‘difficult’ subject, and that they do not see the point. Finding ways to motivate teenagers is therefore essential, with a need to tackle their doubts by showing the relevance of languages to ‘real life’ and making language learning fun and attractive.  At first glance these seem like difficult challenges, but schools across England are already doing this very effectively.

One of the key messages to get through to teenagers is that language and intercultural skills are highly sought after by businesses.  Businesses from across sectors recognise that learning a language also develops other vital work skills such as cultural awareness, communication, creativity and confidence.  The Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI) latest survey of employers highlighted the need for employees with competence in foreign languages.  It revealed the importance of languages to UK firms is set to grow as they operate in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. 74% of employers interviewed in the survey are looking for candidates with conversational language skills.
However, teenagers are largely unaware of the professional benefits of learning a language.  Some schools have developed innovative ways to improve this by working with local employers through CILT’s Business Language Champions programme. Over 300 schools and employers have been involved in the programme, which encourages businesses and schools to work together to give young people an insight into the exciting careers available with languages. Evidence from the schools involved in the programme demonstrates that it has helped develop a fresh approach to language teaching and increased uptake at KS4.   It has also raised the profile of the schools in their local community.

Construction company Bouygues UK, for example, developed a programme of activity with the Convent of Jesus and Mary Language College in London to bring home to students the value of languages for work.  The company is part of a worldwide group comprising 132,000 people in 80 countries. Their London-based operation specialises in designing and building hospitals, schools and social housing, employs people of 30 different nationalities. Employees from Bouygues UK visited the school and gave presentations in French on the company and how different languages are used in the building industry in countries like Cyprus, Hong Kong, Russia and Singapore.  As a follow-up activity, students visited Bouygue’s offices and gave a presentation in French to employees about their college.

Danielle Jackson, who works on undergraduate programmes and work placements at Bouygues UK, felt that the events were extremely successful from the business and student perspective: “Both days gave the girls an opportunity to understand the importance of languages in the wider world and in a business context. We also hopefully gave them an insight into construction as an exciting international career opportunity – it certainly isn’t one I was aware of at their age!”

Year 11 student Carla Fonseca described the new insight she gained from the Bouygues visit: “It showed us that languages are very useful and that we should always aim to know more than one language as people appreciate it and it is good for business.”

Recognising innovation

When schools are developing good practice, it helps to receive recognition for the level of innovation which has been achieved. There are various awards which recognise innovation in school language provision, including the European Award for Languages, which is funded by the European Commission through Ecotec and coordinated by CILT in the UK. The European Award recognises projects – whether run by schools, higher or further education, community projects or other organizations – which demonstrate effective and innovative work with language learning. This year the European Award judges gave the prestigious award to twelve projects from across the UK – six of these from secondary schools. Recognition from an award of this type can be a great motivator both for the language department, the school as a whole, and for teenagers, who can feel justly proud of the part they have played. This year’s secondary winners include Eurofest, a simulated trade fair for Year 8 pupils which takes place annually at Selby College. Making links with Hull University and local businesses, the project saw pupils using French and German in a ‘real life’ context, with university students, local business people and even the mayor coming to the trade fair to ask the teenagers questions about the products they had made.

Alternative accreditation to GCSE can also be an effective motivator for teenagers.  The new Diploma in Languages and International Communication will provide further opportunities to embed work-related learning into languages study.  It will be a good option for schools looking for a new qualification that will prepare learners not only for further or higher education and the workplace, but also for the wider opportunities of living and working with other cultures.

The Diploma in Languages and International Communication for 14-19 year olds will be available in schools and colleges in England from 2011.  It is one of 17 Diplomas that have been designed with the help of employers so that practical learning is at the heart of the student experience. It offers schools an exciting new way to teach languages in partnership with local businesses to switch young learners on to languages and the global economy.

Students will learn how they can use languages in the UK and abroad. They will discover more about jobs with languages, global organisations and challenges such as climate change. As well as learning new languages and the skills to be autonomous language learners, students will become better communicators in English and learn about language through topics such as sport, music and film.  The Diploma is supported by employers who understand the value of applying different contexts to language learning and want to encourage young people to develop their language and intercultural skills, including Bouygues UK, Arsenal FC, the European Commission, Metsec plc and Hotel la Place.

Schools interested in teaching the Diploma in Languages and International Communication will join a local consortium which can include other local schools, colleges, universities, training providers and employers in order to bid to teach the qualification. 

The Diploma has been warmly welcomed, even in the independent sector. Nick Mair, Chairman of the Independent Schools’ Modern Languages Association said: ‘We feel that the Diploma in Languages and International Communication adds a vital new dimension to language learning in schools.  By drawing on students' interests in music, socialising, sport, business and more, it will show them, practically speaking, how language and cultural knowledge can help them get on in every context.’
If you would like to find out more about the Diploma in Languages and International Communication, visit www.

Another way of showing teenagers the importance of languages is a competition which emphasises the fun side of language learning. CILT’s Languages and Film Talent Awards (LAFTAs) is a UK-wide competition inviting 13 to 21 year olds to make two minute videos about why languages matter. The criterion for winning an award focuses on the originality of the idea rather than the technical quality, and teenagers are encouraged to film videos on their mobile phone or any equipment they have to hand. The competition has attracted sponsorship from many companies and organizations including Eurostar, Cactus Language, the Goethe Institut and the Spanish Embassy, and prizes include trips to Spain, Germany and France. Entries can come from individuals or from groups, which has encouraged many teachers to use the competition as a classroom activity. All of the entries received are uploaded to the LAFTAs YouTube page, giving teachers a bank of clips to use as examples to get pupils thinking about the importance of languages. Imaginative reasons are encouraged – one of last year’s winning clips showed how languages can save you from bloodcurdling monsters on the streets of Tokyo! – but the activity also offers a chance for more serious brain-storming on the benefits of languages.

Digital video is a format which appeals to young people, and the opportunity to make a short film attracted many teenagers to the competition who would not normally be interested in languages. For example, Penketh High School in Warrington is a media and visual arts college with a low uptake of modern languages. Language teacher Jacqui Jenkinson told pupils about the competition, and a group immediately took up the challenge. Their clip, MFL (about the benefits of language skills when you are the President of the United States!) won a top award.  The group was presented with their prize - a trip to Germany with the Goethe Institut - at a glittering award ceremony at the British Library in London.

Their success was also celebrated in the local press and created a huge buzz within the school itself. Jacqui Jenkinson reported she has seen an improved take-up of GCSE and A-level German, and the school is extremely keen to enter again this year. One of Jacqui’s students, Matthew Owen said ‘I want to thank everyone at the LAFTAs for letting us show what we can do. We all think it was a huge success in finding young talent and giving them the chance to do great things later in life.’ The new competition runs until February 2010, and includes an Olympic category for the best clip involving languages and the Olympics. To find out more, visit www.

Although it is easy for schools to feel disheartened about the future of language learning, we hope this article will have demonstrated that there is excellent work happening in secondary schools around the country to successfully motivate pupils. There is also support available from Routes into Languages, the government’s £8 million programme aimed at increasing take up of languages at university.
What’s more, the Open School for Languages, a free online interactive language learning resource for teenagers run by RM and funded by the Department for Children, School and Families (DCSF), will be available in early 2010. So, with such a range of support and examples of good practice available, there is no need for language departments and leadership teams to feel powerless to stop the decline of language learning in their school.

By Catherine Mansfield and Michelle Brassell, CILT, the National Centre for Languages

School Leadership Today