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The History of Modern Foreign Language Teaching

A project funded by the AHRC has been looking at the history of Modern Foreign Language teaching in the UK and its future in education.

Who should learn languages? “The answer has changed hugely over time in terms of gender, class and academic ability,” says Nicola McLelland, professor in German and the history of linguistics at the University of Nottingham. “At different times, people have fervently believed different things are true.”

Policies and priorities also change. That’s why new teachers need an understanding that stretches beyond current practice, says McLelland. “If everything changes five or ten years into your career and you have no historical overview, it can feel as if the rug has been pulled out from under your feet.”

The AHRC-funded research network project, ‘Towards a History of Modern Foreign Language Teaching and Learning’, aimed to provide that overview by stimulating historical research into the teaching of modern foreign languages, including German, Italian, Spanish, French and Russian, in the UK and beyond.

Led by McLelland and co-investigator Dr Richard Smith, Associate professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick, the project ran from July 2012 to July 2014. It recognised the importance of understanding who learns languages, what they need to learn and how they might be taught, contributing to the establishment of an ongoing research network.

History can provide useful lessons and a sense of perspective, says McLelland. Yet the history of modern foreign language teaching has been neglected in the UK, in marked contrast to other parts of Europe. “We wanted to improve understanding both of the place of modern languages in education, and of cultural history such as Anglo-German and Anglo-French relations.”

For example, World War Two was completely absent from German textbooks in the immediate aftermath of the war. “If you opened a textbook of German for English learners between 1945 and 1967, you wouldn’t know it had happened,” she says. “People began to talk about it from the 1960s and then for a while it was all they talked about. After unification in 1990, it seemed textbook authors felt that the story was complete and people could finally view the war as just one part of Germany’s history.”

Two project workshops took place in Nottingham and Warwick, in December 2012 and June 2013. The first focused on the teaching of individual languages, such as the history of German and of French. At the second workshop, the emphasis was on the teaching and learning of modern languages in specific countries.

“The pedagogy of language learning still revolves around the same basic things: word lists and scenarios,” says Professor Mike Kelly, OBE, director of research in modern languages at the University of Southampton, who participated in the first workshop. “There are various ways to develop those approaches, but it is very interesting to see just how long-lived they have been.”

As of 2014, language learning is compulsory from the age of seven in the UK. At Key Stage 4 (GCSE), however, languages became optional in 2004 and the numbers studying German and French have fallen significantly. “We always try to make the commercial case for languages, but history shows that doesn’t necessarily work for getting children to want to study them,” says McLelland. “They have a relatively low status compared to other parts of Europe where English is seen as a high-status subject.”

“There have been strong doubts about whether second foreign languages can survive alongside French in British schools,” she adds. The EU recommends that all member states encourage children to learn two foreign languages and Scotland is implementing this.

In England, however, the idea that two languages are too much has a long history, going back to the nineteen hundreds with the President of the Modern Language Association, AC Benson. “When Benson addressed the Association in 1907, he argued that making all pupils habitually learn more than one language would only confuse the average child.”

In Britain, says McLelland, there was a perception that German was a language for boys while girls should learn French. “Yet in Ireland, it was exactly the reverse.”, at least up until 1945.

Education for women was much less regulated in the 19th century, leaving space for considerable innovation.

“Many things that became mainstream in the 20th century started as part of this lower-status education for women,” says McLelland. “We discovered this from existing research in Germany and it also seems to have been the case in Britain. If you look at the materials people used and the books they wrote, they were trying to innovate all the time. It wasn’t just about grammar and translation.”

The study of German, she adds, is often seen as being under threat. “We think these are tough times for the language. But if you go back to the early 20th century, they were having the same conversation, practically word for word.”

The project culminated in an international conference, 'Connecting Cultures?: An International Conference on the History of Teaching and Learning Second/Foreign Languages, 1500–2000’, at the University of Nottingham in July 2014. Dedicated to the history of modern language teaching and learning, a UK first, it brought together teacher educators, student teachers, practising teachers, historians and linguists.

Lesley Hagger-Vaughan, assistant professor in education at the University of Nottingham, attended the project workshops alongside a group of Nottingham PGCE students and chaired a roundtable discussion at the conference.

“We work with students to develop their own philosophies and theories of practice, and we want these to be future-proof,” says Hagger-Vaughan. “Giving our trainees a broader picture of the development of policy and curriculum approaches equips them to make decisions about how best to teach.”

“It was also really important for the researchers to interact with trainee teachers, giving them practical insight into current concerns.” In the future, she says, the intention is to embed the history of modern languages within the PGCE course. “We also hope to develop a pathway for undergraduates who are studying languages and are interested in teaching.”

Professor Kelly hopes the project will give policy-makers a clearer evidence base when making decisions about language teaching and learning. “This project reminds us that language teaching and learning have been with us for 5,000 years and there’s a lot we can learn from the past,” he says. “It’s good to step back from the present and look at where this all came from.”

You can learn more about the project through its, History of Modern Foreign Language Teaching and Learning in Britain website.

Lanuguages is one of AHRC's main themes visit our OWRI section to find out more.

See also our blog post 'Why don’t pupils want to study languages in the UK?'.

Image credits:

  • '1960s German text book', 'Berlin after 1989 cover' and 'Map of Germany' credited to the Open University Press
  • '1969 language lab' by kind permission from the German Embassy in London (banner image)

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