23/05/2019, by CLAS

University Language Ambassadors – An inspirational strand in UK schools’ language strategy

It seems that rarely a day goes by without a negative news story about the decline of languages in UK schools (see BBC News, Language learning: German and French drop by half in Schools and The Independent, Britain’s dwindling language skills are a disaster for the country and needs action, MPs warn  for recent examples). An article in the Guardian this week offers a more positive perspective, highlighting the ways in which languages undergraduates can help to motivate pupils to continue with languages at GCSE level, the point at which, in most secondary schools, languages become optional and the much publicised decline begins. The article lauds the impact that undergraduate students can have on school pupils, referring to the students’ enthusiasm for languages, their proximity in age to the school pupils and their ability to relate languages to their own “real-life” experiences.

The Department of Modern Languages works with a number of East Midlands schools’ languages departments, engaging second and final year students in exactly this endeavour; to enthuse and motivate local school pupils to continue with language learning at GCSE and beyond. Working closely with local languages teachers to pinpoint the most effective point in the GCSE options process to intervene, pairs of our students deliver 45 minute sessions to classes of 30 pupils with the aim of influencing the 13 and 14 year olds to reflect carefully before jettisoning the opportunity to really engage with French, Spanish or German. The students deliver presentations outlining their own language journeys (some encompassing fear of failure alongside enjoyment and success), sharing images and stories of their year abroad and delivering a 20 minute language taster in Portuguese or Russian.

The purpose of the latter is to demonstrate to the pupils how they can apply their language skills to a new language and learn a great deal in only 20 minutes. Feedback from local teachers has included: “It has really boosted our options numbers and encouraged a few to tell me that they want to study Spanish at university” and “The impact that you had on the kids was absolutely brilliant; they went away buzzing after the taster session and we’ve had a few comments about foreign travel at uni, which is completely out of the ordinary for our profile of students”. However, what if, once pupils have started their GCSE language course, they struggle to master unfamiliar grammar structures and fear of failure prevents them from participating in class?

Language “anxiety” is a well-documented phenomenon (Young 1991, Horwitz  2001, MacIntyre & Gardner 1994) and can have a crippling effect on pupil participation in language classes and, as a result, on a pupil’s belief in their language capabilities. This is another area, in which our languages undergraduates can have a considerable impact in a more sustained intervention. Up to 30 final year linguists participate in a teaching placement in a local primary or secondary school as part of an academic module. Frequently, our students are deployed to practise speaking skills ahead of the GCSE and A level oral exams. Students recount that, by sharing their own experiences of language anxiety, pupils come to understand that making mistakes is a crucial part of the language learning process; through recognising their errors, pupils understand how to improve their oral skills. Bringing enthusiasm, empathy and a high level of skill, students as languages ambassadors can be highly influential and effective as a means to halt the languages decline.

Young, D.J., 1991. Creating a low‐anxiety classroom environment: What does language anxiety research suggest?. The modern language journal75(4), pp.426-437.

Horwitz, E., 2001. Language anxiety and achievement. Annual review of applied linguistics21, pp.112-126.

MacIntyre, P.D. and Gardner, R.C., 1994. The subtle effects of language anxiety on cognitive processing in the second language. Language learning44(2), pp.283-305.


Written by Tara Webster-Deakin, Widening Participation and Outreach Manager
School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies

Posted in French and Francophone StudiesGerman StudiesLanguage CentreLanguages and Area StudiesOutreachRussian and Slavonic StudiesSpanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies