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UK Research

The purpose of learning a language is to know how to communicate. At MyDialog, we don’t believe that the schools curriculums encourage this sufficiently.

This view is echoed by those in the academic profession. The NUT Position Statement on Foreign Languages reads that “a review of MFL provision should consider the scope for developing new MFL courses and qualifications which focus on speaking and listening in a modern foreign language.  The ‘traditional’ GCSE based route in Key Stage 4, and the National Curriculum itself, has a substantial focus on writing skills.” This is supported by a student in the Ispos Mori report, who states that “at GCSE it felt like we were being taught to pass exams, not speak a language. So when we were preparing for a speaking exam, we’d learn set phrases. And we’re often learning how it sounds, rather than trying to understand it.” Although MyDialog will target the A Level market, as not enough resources are devoted to speaking in KS4, students speaking skills consequently suffer at A Level, evidenced by the finding in the Ispos Mori report that “Confidence in speech can be an issue at Russel Group Institutions…suggesting a lack of focus on these areas at A Level.” A university lecture said “I think that there is not enough emphasis put on the speaking. Students are definitely not confident speaking in front of the class; they can do it, but they are not comfortable speaking. There’s a sense of insecurity that sets in.” The students who pursue languages at university would be the top students, and if these pupils struggle with speaking, this is likely to mirror the majority of the students who take languages at A Level. The Decline in the Uptake of MFL Literature Review supports this notion by stating that “studies…suggest that students find speaking the most challenging. Many students…report a lack of confidence in oral tasks…Research suggests that linguistic self-confidence and willingness to communicate are the two main predictors of MFL competence.

The above shows that a problem with languages the UK is that the curriculum does not place enough emphasis on communication skills. Instead, the Ispos Mori study finds  that “many students continue to feel teaching focuses unduly on the exam at A-level, and that A-level exam grades in MFL are not very accurate reflections of actual proficiency in a language.” This way of learning, in our opinion, is not student friendly, students are motivated to study languages so that they can communicate in that language, as a student in the Ispos Mori report exclaims, “I feel like I don’t do enough speaking. And it’s one of the most important bits! It’s the main reason I decided to learn Spanish.”

It’s important to note that part of problem with the way that languages are taught in the UK could be attributed to insufficient hours dedicated to languages at school. Tom Sherringtpn, head teacher at King Edward IV Grammer School in Chelmsford notes that “a standard curriculum will set aside two hours a week, in line with DfE guidance. This just isn’t enough to build the level of retention needed to facilitate an interactive communicative approach and to break down students’ inhibitions with speaking.”
This analysis suggests that the market can benefit from a product which increases the hours spent learning a language and helps a student with communication. We want to fill this gap; MyDialog is a product which will target A Level Students in the UK learning a language, and pair them with students in that respective country, creating a mutual beneficial language exchange. This uses both recommendations in the Ispos Mori report of “use of online learning tools and more contact with native speakers” as ways to improve languages in the UK.

If MyDialog is introduced by schools, it could increase the appeal for pupils to study languages at a higher level. Mark Herbert, head of schools programmes at the British Council stated that attracting enough pupils to study a language post-16 recognised among those surveyed as the « most widespread challenge » currently faced by language teachers across the country. The graph below shows that over the past 10 years, there has been a downwards trend in the total number of students who pursue languages at A Level. This contrasts with the increased globalisation and connectivity over this same period, which one would expect to accompany a growth in language take-up. One needs to therefore asses the reasons behind the fall in language entries. Research indicates that there are two possible explanations. Over the past decade, there has been a rise in the number of students attending university, and languages are perceived to be demanding subjects. This is supported by the finding in the Ispos Mori Report that 92% of teachers cited the perception of MFL as a difficult subject as the reason why students do not progress to A Level. Hence, students shy away from selecting them as the need to obtain good results to secure their places at university has become increasingly important. The difference in the difficulty between GCSE and A Level is envisaged to be large, which discourages students from continuing 0with languages at A Level. The Ispos Mori Report states that “the course content, requirement and standards at GCSE do not resemble A level courses. This means that students are academically unprepared for A levels, where they are required to manipulate language rather than simply memorise text.” This view is reinforced by a student who states “it’s so much harder at AS compared to GCSE, you can’t just parrot sentences, you can’t just memorise stuff.” I believe that MyDialog can be used to help smoothen the transition from GCSE to A Level, thus encourage A Level participation, as communicating with native students gives pupils an opportunity to learn and understand both the formalities and nuances of a language, a skill required for A Level, but not emphasized at GCSE.

The second reason behind the declining number of entries could be due to the course material. The content does not invoke interest in students, it is an extension from GCSE, and students might not relate to the standardised topics of education, lifestyle, health and politics.  The Ispos Mori Review noted that “teachers and students stressed the need for age-appropriate and relevant topics at…A Level. They felt MFL assessment should focus on language capability and not literary or political understanding. There should be far more opportunity for contact with native speakers.” MyDialog can be used to help modernise the course, speaking with students in another country brings communication to the forefront of their learning and emphasises to students the advantages of understanding another language in an increasingly globalised and connected world. This could help to reinvigorate the appeal of language study and thereby attract more pupils to study A Level.

If MyDialog prompts language take up, it would result in external economic benefits. The growth of trade blocs and an increasingly international workforce has heightened the need for language skills amongst the UK labour force and has highlighted the problems that employers face with staff who have limited foreign language capability. A 2013 survey of businesses by the Confederation of British Industry revealed that only 36% of employers were satisfied with their employees’ language skills, and 70% of UK employers said that they value MFL skills, particularly in building relations with clients, customers and suppliers. The deficiency of linguists in the workforce has been described as ‘tax on trade’ as it is a barrier to exporting with non-English speaking countries which is estimated to cost the UK economy between £7bn and £17bn. The joint CBI/Ernst&Young publication ‘Winning Overseas’ review is clear regarding the necessity for better linguistic skills to improve the UK’s export potential, and the 2012 ‘Exporting is good for Britain, the British Chambers of Commerce’ report stated that ‘the extent of the language deficit in the UK is truly serious: up to 96% of respondents had no foreign language ability for the markets they served.” This language shortage threatens the UK’s competitiveness and influence in the world’s economy which will be amplified after the Brexit negotiations have been ratified, as there will be a greater need to make0020relations with new trade partners.

The Languages for the Future report acknowledges this language deficit and notes that “there can be no doubt that the UK needs more of its people to speak foreign languages – for employability, for trade and the economy…much of this revolves around the difference between being ‘fluent’ or ‘functional’ in a language.” If MyDialog attracts greater language uptake, this will be fulfilled, and if not, the weekly practise that a student will have with their exchange partner will increase their fluency in a language, thus benefiting the economy as their language skills would become more valuable. The report continues to recommend that “government and business should work together to develop educational policy relating to languages and international skills, as these have a direct impact on the UK’s prosperity and international influence. Schools should fully exploit the range of free or funded resources available to support language learning, which are available locally, online or through international links. These include language assistants, exchanges and overseas trips, and do not know the international cultural institutes in the UK.” MyDialog aims to implement this; it is an online international link which schools can exploit, and by practicing speaking, a student will have a greater understanding of the language and culture of a country, which employers can utilise to increase its international influence.