Languages in schools: how we’re trying to win hearts and minds

Few would contest that the ability to communicate in more than one language is a very good thing. Scotland’s National Centre for Languages (SCILT), driven by this belief, supports languages wherever they are spoken, used and learned across the country, because there is growing evidence that they boost brain power, improve memory, enhance multi-tasking ability and improve performance in other academic areas.

It is therefore troubling to see a growing trend in recent years for learners in secondary schools to drop languages in favour of other subjects as they progress into later years of study.

For several years, young people in Wales have benefited from a mentoring scheme led by colleagues at the University of Cardiff, which appears to be winning hearts and minds. So, when we heard that the Northern Alliance, the University of Aberdeen and the Open University were planning a similar collaboration, we at SCILT felt compelled to get involved so that similar opportunities could be offered to young people in Scotland. From these initial discussions, Scotland’s Language Explorer Programme was born.

For this pilot, colleagues in the Northern Alliance selected five schools from Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire (Lochside Academy, in Aberdeen; Inverurie Academy; Mearns Academy, in Laurencekirk; Peterhead Academy; and The Gordon Schools, in Huntly) to take part. Schools identified S2s who had not yet decided what subjects they would choose in the senior phase of secondary school but who weren’t fully convinced of the benefits of learning a language.

Over six weeks, small groups of young people were mentored online by languages students from the University of Aberdeen, who talked to their younger counterparts about multilingualism, cultural awareness and transferable skills, and demonstrated the intercultural and global competencies that are built by language learning.

We are hoping that the programme will inspire a long-lasting passion for language learning among the S2s who took part. It still remains to be seen if they have been convinced enough of the benefits to continue their language studies for a national qualification. However, the learners have shown great enthusiasm for this project and for the relationships built between them and their inspiring peers.

As these three young people told us:

  • “Languages are like the roots of a tree; we all have shared words that link us.” The Gordon Schools, Aberdeenshire.
  • “I learnt that English language borrows words from other languages and that fascinates me.” Lochside Academy, Aberdeen.
  • “Being able to speak to a wide range of people means that I will have the widest number of opportunities open to me.” Inverurie Academy, Aberdeenshire.

But what of our student mentors? What did they get from taking part and giving their time? They tell us that they were enthused by the curiosity and energy of the young people. The programme has given them an opportunity to develop leadership and employability skills. Crucially, it has provided them with an insight into working with young people, which has sparked interest for some of the students into pursuing a teaching career.

The scheme will culminate in a celebration event on Wednesday 31 May at the University of Aberdeen for all those who took part. This will be the first time that the young people and the student mentors will have met face to face, and is sure to be a fun and happy reunion.

Colleagues at SCILT will be closely evaluating this pilot with a view to expanding the programme nationally, with the University Council of Modern Languages Scotland as partners.

Karen Liddle and Suzanne Ritchie are professional development officers at SCILT, Scotland’s National Centre for Languages, while Fhiona Mackay is SCILT’s director

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