European language learning at all levels is suffering in the post-Brexit world, but the truth is it has been ailing for a long time. For English-speaking students, part of the challenge is persuading them that speaking and understanding languages other than English can be relevant and useful to them in a world where English is the lingua franca. Many begrudge the compulsory nature of language-learning in schools, even though that in itself indicates the place Modern Languages should have in any child’s education. Alarmingly though, the educational press abounds with reports of rapidly declining numbers taking language GCSEs, together with a national shortage of qualified language teachers. This is reflected in the tertiary education system, where Modern Languages departments are in crisis because of low applicant numbers. How can we keep an interest in Modern Languages alive throughout secondary school, hopefully even inspiring some students to embark on language degrees at university? This is where tutoring can greatly enhance a child’s experience of language learning, making it dynamic and exciting by introducing a wide range of cultural material, and giving the one-to-one attention necessary to really build a child’s confidence and skills with the language.
Language learning, as with other academic subjects, should be about stimulating intellectual curiosity. It’s not just about being able to order food in a restaurant or buying a train ticket! Some aspects of national curriculum language teaching in schools are frankly quite boring and uninspiring. If I didn’t know that studying languages at university could be infinitely more challenging and rewarding than what we covered in school classes, I probably wouldn’t have carried on studying them for as long as I did. Thanks to my knowledge of French, I can read Rousseau, Voltaire and Balzac in the original. These lions, not just of French culture but of human thought and civilisation as a whole, were not even mentioned when I was studying French at school! In my tutoring now, I try to introduce students to literature as early as possible, whether it’s reading easy French stories online or looking at bandes dessinées, the comic strips which are such a key part of French culture. There is the inevitable grammar learning, however I encourage students to engage more deeply with the language by drawing comparisons with English or Latin, or other languages they may know. This interdisciplinary, comparative approach is also often sadly lacking in the school curriculum, yet it really awakens students’ interest in languages. Tutoring offers the flexibility to explore all that studying a language entails, from how it expresses human identity to how it articulates the world around us. With languages, it should always be about the bigger picture!