Follow the Hippo

Profile picture of John Caughton

John Claughton, Former Chief Master of King Edward’s
School, Birmingham, and co-founder of WoLLoW: The
World of Languages and Languages of the World.

‘Now, what I want I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.’

In 1854 Dickens created the prophetically named Thomas Gradgrind to be the ‘executive principal’ of Coketown’s school in Hard Times, nearly 150 years before his fictional purpose came to grim reality, the world of grades and grind and SATS and EBacc and Progress 8.

So, if we were to follow Thomas Gradgrind’s mission statement, what are the facts about the teaching of modern languages? Well, here are three ‘facts’, if such things exist these days. The first is that the learning of languages is a ‘Good Thing’, valuable for life and work and success in the new ‘global Britain’. As the British Council’s 2021 languages survey concludes:

‘There has never been a more crucial time for politicians, policy makers and school leaders to understand the role of languages in diplomacy, security, international relations and societal cohesion.’

The second ‘fact’ is that there is more knowledge of languages in our schools than ever before. That’s not because pupils are being taught more languages or being better taught. It’s because the pupils are arriving at our school gates or classroom doors with more languages than ever before: 20% of primary school pupils are designated as EAL; the 2021 Schools Census records that there are 316 languages spoken by pupils in English schools; there are 9 languages with more than 40,000 speakers – Urdu, Polish and Punjabi are on the podium; mirabile dictu more than 17,000 Afghan pupils here. To pass from statistics to the specific, when I was a boy at King Edward’s School 50 years ago, there might have been but a handful of boys who spoke a language other than English and they would have been migrants from central Europe. A recent survey which took a form period revealed that 55% of the boys in the Shells – Year 7 to the rest of the universe – speak more than one language at home. En passant, such a survey is also a Good, if not fascinating, Thing and you only need one question, ‘What languages do you speak at home?’

The third fact is that, despite the second truth, the teaching of languages is in a parlous state. The annual survey of language teaching conducted by the British Council tells us so, every year, and the road leads down: ‘facilis est decensus Averno’, despite the efforts in Latin of Classics for All or the Swire Foundation’s Mandarin programme. In primary schools, the subject has too little time, resources, expertise and regard. Transition from primary to secondary is ‘underdeveloped’: it’s very hard for it to be anything else when the languages studied by primary school pupils are rarely aligned with those offered at secondary school – and secondary schools go back to the beginning. Thereafter, not surprisingly, it becomes a matter of a declining number of GCSE and A level pupils and a declining number of languages on offer: the government’s ambition is for 90% of pupils in England to be taking a language as part of EBacc, but in 2019, languages were the laggard with only 46.6% of pupils in the state sector taking a language at GCSE. And all of this slipping away has an impact on the scale and range of provision at universities: when.

Of course, independent schools have some means of shelter from this storm: they do have more money, more expert teachers, often from their own senior schools, and more freedom. And some of them even have the good sense to do the IB Diploma which ensures that every pupil studies at least one language all the way through. Even so, there are still problems to be faced in the early years: languages don’t count as much as those subjects that are part of the 11+ selection process; no one can quite decide whether to do one language or offer a ‘carousel’, which can go round and round but get nowhere; and secondary schools, whether independent or state schools, are bound to start at the beginning again, precisely because of the very variety of previous experience.

So, what’s to be done, not to square the circle, but to align these three ‘facts’? If the ‘descent to Avernus’ is easy, is there a way back into the sunlight? Well, try this. Let’s pursue not ‘Facts’, but fancy, for a moment. Let’s imagine that, as boys and girls begin their study of languages, we want them not to learn a single language – or even more than one language – but to see and understand how languages work, to make connections between languages, to see patterns and similarities, and to make use of, indeed celebrate, the languages which many of them already know. So, let’s imagine some things we might do. Let’s imagine that we start by asking how multilingual the classroom is and from there we can tell and talk about lots of stories of family, but also of empire and migration. Then, let’s imagine that we do some Greek – after all, these are my lessons and I can choose. By Greek, I don’t mean the nominative masculine singular aorist passive participle of ὁράω – which just happens to be ὄφθεις. I mean that we get them to play with a different alphabet as if it were codebreaking, to think about omicron and omega, planets and comets, democracy and pandemic, the tyrannosauros ‘Rex’ from Toy Story and the Icthyosauros of Rutland, to see why physics and philosophy aren’t spelt fisiks and filosofy. And, if we are lucky, there might be a Russian pupil who can tell us about the Cyrillic alphabet or, more likely, a boy who can explain the Urdu or Arabic alphabet.

And then let’s imagine that we teach them some Latin, not so they can say ‘Is it an ablative absolute?’ in answer to any grammar question. We could talk about the Latin words for ‘father’ and ‘son’ and ‘mother’ and ‘sister’ and trace their similarities in other languages. And that could lead us to consider the impact of the Roman Empire in creating Romance languages and even to the concept of Indo-European languages. After all, we do need to know why one in 10 in Welsh are very similar to one to ten in Punjabi – and that Punjab means ‘five waters’. And we can get them to think about a different kind of language where it’s not word order, but word endings that form meaning, which might even help their English grammar and prepare the boys and girls for inflected languages in the future.

Or let’s imagine that, instead of teaching pupils the days of the week in French or Spanish or whatever, we ask them why Thursday is jeudi in French and Donnerstag in German? Or why Sunday is domingo or dimanche or domenica. Or where the sabbath comes into all this or what other days of the week we can think of in other cultures. Or why there are seven days in a week, not eight as in The Beatles.

I could go on, but I hope you get my drift and I am near my word limit. Of course, you’ll say, ‘That’s all fine and dandy, but where do I get the time – and the knowledge – to perform such wizardry?’ Well, don’t panic. The programme ‘WoLLoW’ already exists and provides this – and much more, for free, gratis and for nothing. I might even, if I didn’t know better, say that it was ‘oven ready’. All you have to do is follow the hippo to the hollow of, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

Published by WoLLoW Publishing

All posts on the WoLLoW website are owned by this account on behalf of the original post authors.

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