This is a guest post from Hélène Fyffe, an undergraduate starting her final year at Edinburgh Napier University, having spent a year on placement with Microsoft UK Education as part of her course.
I'm sure our Scottish readers will be familiar with the Scottish Government's recent policy A one plus two approach to language learning. For those of you who aren't familiar with the policy, by 2020 the Scottish government want every child to be learning a modern language from Primary 1, and have the choice to learn a second language from Primary 5 onwards.
Although 1+2 policy will only directly affect Scottish teachers, I believe that the topic is relevant to all teachers, as nationwide education ministers are placing more emphasis on the importance of improving language skills and engagement amongst students in the UK.
Demand for languages in the UK
If, like I was, you're curious to find out why the British and Scottish governments are investing such considerable research, resources and concern into the improvement of language uptake in the UK, do read on.
In a growing global world where cross-cultural communication is becoming increasingly more necessary for business and economic growth, Britain’s students have the worst ranking in Europe for foreign language speaking, reading and writing skills. This probably doesn’t surprise many people.
A recent study on the nation’s state of languages by the British Academy has reported that the UK’s language skill gap may well become a threat to the future of the British economy: according to the report, half the demand of future economic growth in the UK will be dependent upon employees having foreign language skills that are either very difficult or impossible (Mandarin and Arabic) to learn with the current academic system.
Some might question the need for Brits to be proficient in more than one language, as English has for a long time been the predominant global business language. Let's face it, most of us turned our noses up at the German and French books at school because we knew that everyone speaks English. As long as we could order a beer in French and German, we were dandy.
However, who knows for how long this will be the case as markets evolve and industries change. What's certain is that British students need to be better prepared for communicating with our overseas neighbours, and equally important, need to have an aptitude at understanding cultural differences and relationships, for their development in academic, social and commercial settings.
What support is there for teachers?
So returning to the 1+2 policy, it has been outlined that skills in listening, responding, talking and turn taking are essential for communication and by learning a modern language, can be developed along with writing skills.
The prospect of teaching languages may seem daunting for teachers who have never taught a language. However, you'll be relieved to hear that in fact there are plenty of resources to help and teachers don't actually need to be fluent in the language.
In fact, at Primary level the same teaching methods for teaching English can be employed such as the teaching of sound systems, listening and talking skills, with a lot of body language, props and gestures.
There is a lot of support that can be found on the Scottish SCILT website, the BBC Education website and Euro Club Schools.
Microsoft solutions for languages
Incidentally, I believe that technology can have a really valuable role in the teaching and learning of languages.
Microsoft Education and Partners have invested heavily into the development of user-friendly apps for teachers to use in class to engage students. Not only do these apps inspire students, but they also support teachers with content and class structuring, which especially in unfamiliar territories, may be useful.
There are a number of Windows 8 apps that could be used to enhance language learning in education. Babbel is an award winning language learning app that has been endorsed by the New York Times, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal for its user-friendly efficiency. It offers students the chance to practice and test their knowledge of a language on the go with a vocabulary trainer, speech recognition and interactive images and sounds. Babbel can be downloaded onto any Windows, Apple or Android device and is aimed to help people practice their language skills in a modern environment.
Play and Learn is a fun game which helps learners to familiarise themselves with German language. It is aimed at primary level and essentially creates a fun world where learners can apply the sounds and look of the words to visual objects.
To read more about the solutions in the learning context, click here.
Finally, Skype in the Classroom is another great programme which teachers can sign up their class to for free and connect with classes from overseas to share lessons. Teachers can collaborate with other classes and enable their students to experience communicating with for example a Spanish-speaking class and be immersed in real colloquial Spanish speaking and culture.
What's certain is that in a world where being able to communicate with our neighbours is becoming more important, we need to support and inspire students to pursue languages. Technology has an integral role in stirring this motivation and I believe, could be a valuable teaching tool for teachers.