Lucy Jenkins explores an innovative project in Wales that is changing young people’s perceptions about language learning
The MFL (modern foreign languages) Student Mentoring Project is a flagship programme in Wales that has had a proven impact on pupils’ perception of languages in Key Stage 3 (KS3; ages 11-14) and their uptake of languages into Key Stage 4 (KS4; ages 14-16). Funded by the Welsh Government under the Global Futures Strategy 2015-2020, it is a direct response to the steep decline in pupils studying languages from age 14, when they are no longer compulsory in England and Wales. Now in its third year, the project started with 21 participating schools in 2015-2016, increasing to 55 schools the following year. In 2017-18, it is working with 56 schools, from Welsh-medium schools to those with a high number of recipients of free school meals.
The project aims to influence attitudes towards language by having a sustained presence at the pre-GCSE stage and exposing pupils to a more holistic experience of language learning. Working in partnership with four Welsh universities (Bangor, Swansea, Aberystwyth and Cardiff), the four regional educational consortia, and secondary schools across Wales, we aim to help Year 9 students to appreciate the benefits of learning a language.
Working on the premise that young people are inspired by other young people, we train undergraduate linguists from our four partner universities to work with Year 9 students who are not planning to take a language GCSE, or are undecided. We aim to dispel myths around language learning by debunking notions that everyone speaks English and that the only careers languages lead to are teaching and translating. Working through a 12-week cycle, mentors introduce students to other cultures, and outline the opportunities that speaking languages has afforded them. They mentor groups of 5-8 students for up to an hour a week in two six-week blocks (phases 1 and 2). The number of groups each mentor works with depends on the amount of time they can commit to the project; some take on one group, others have four or five.
A report released by the British Academy in November 2017 stressed that an awareness of other cultures and languages is essential in securing the future of the UK economy, society, security and diplomacy in the context of the global labour market.1 Our project aim is to equip young learners with the skills to move freely between languages and cultures, and to develop a keen curiosity about the experiences of other people. It asks them to question their identity in relation to languages: Who am I? What do languages mean to me?
Mentors are trained to listen to their mentees and encourage discussion. A typical session would involve activities that subtly draw on the existing multicultural experiences of the students, such as talking about food likes and dislikes, travel and film. Discussing these common interests helps students realise that they are already participating in a multilingual and global society. One mentor commented on this unique aspect of the project: “It is different, getting pupils to work out examples rather than giving them the answers – it certainly had an effect on the way the mentees thought about things.” This self-reflexive approach encourages pupils to consider their relationship with their national identity and to connect with wider global communities.
The Welsh linguascape
Wales finds itself in a challenging situation where languages are concerned. Languages are marginalised by an overloaded secondary school timetable, often competing in GCSE option blocks that limit student choices. In many schools, languages have seen a significant reduction in teaching hours, and the subject is under threat of closure in some schools. The effects of these systemic challenges are reflected in the findings of the latest Language Trends Wales Report:2
As a bilingual nation, Wales should be at an advantage, striding ahead in terms of language acquisition and pedagogy. The reality is quite different. The MFL Student Mentoring Project aims to nurture and sustain a culture where languages enjoy a more prominent position within school culture. The new curriculum, which will be rolled out from 2022, features international languages as one of six core Areas of Learning and Experience (AoLE), providing some hope that language will enjoy a more privileged position in new national teaching strategies.
What are the benefits?
Asking teachers of other subjects to give up teaching time to support a mentoring project for MFL can be daunting when they are already under pressure to cover an extensive syllabus in a set time. The mentoring project does not target syllabus content because it aims to take languages beyond the school walls. Mentoring differs from the formality of the student-teacher relationship, allowing mentees to ask different questions and to make mistakes in a non-assessed environment. They have the opportunity to try new languages, such as Mandarin, Japanese or Spanish, and to get a taste of life abroad.
Students look to their mentors as figures to aspire to, not only in terms of language learning but also in terms of outlook. For many, meeting their mentor is their first exposure to higher education. The Award and Recognition event, held at the end of the mentoring cycle at the hub university, is often their first contact with university life. It shows them the opportunities that are out there. This is about raising pupil aspirations both around language and global mobility, and around further study. Teachers commented that one of the great successes of the project was in building ambition and broadening horizons, and that the link with higher education was key to this.
External evaluation of the first two years highlighted the following achievements:
The mentors also benefit, gaining professional training and developing skills that are required in the working world, such as resilience, time-management, organisational skills and professionalism. One mentor commented that the project had helped her to learn how to communicate positively, and that she now had an increased awareness of the impact of “how you say things” and how they might be misconstrued. All these skills were felt to be extremely useful for future employability. For many, working with pupils has bolstered their confidence and helped them to develop a deeper connection with their own language experience.
A recent focus has been extending our geographical reach so that we can work with schools that are distant from their hub university. To do this, the project team is developing an online platform, Digi-Languages, with specialists at Cardiff University. This e-mentoring route will be evaluated with the support of a small Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Open World Research Initiative grant.3
In a recent Radio Wales interview, I was asked, “Isn’t it all too little – learning languages has gone out of fashion?”. As far as I am concerned, the MFL Student Mentoring Project has an ethical mission to challenge such assumptions. Languages are alive, and are our key tool for communicating with one another. In a post-Brexit society, where language deficits may become more apparent, the need to spread an understanding of other languages is more important than ever. I, for one, support a multicultural, multilingual Wales and Britain as our future.
The MFL Student Mentoring Project was awarded the Institute’s Threlford Memorial Cup 2017 at the awards event on 7 November at the Law Society, London
1 British Academy (2017) ‘The Right Skills: Celebrating skills in the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS)’, London: The British Academy; bit.ly/2AdIPlD
2 Tinsley, T & Board, K (2017) ‘Language Trends Wales 2016/17: The state of language learning in secondary schools in Wales’, Cardiff: British Council Wales
3 Arts and Humanities Research Council (2017) ‘New Research Projects will Demonstrate the Value of Language Led Research’, London: AHRC; bit.ly/2jBWi3A
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