By Edoardo Martoni

The Dark Cloud

Learning a new languageThe study of traditional modern foreign languages has been declining over the last decade. Statistics show the number of British teenagers learning languages in 2012 fell again; there were only 12,500 candidates doing French and less than 5,000 doing German. Interest in Spanish declined slightly as well, at 7,351 candidates last year, as compared to the 2011 figure of 7,601.

While more traditional languages fail to gain much interest, other languages have seen a slight increase; Polish rose from 844 candidates in 2011 to 923 in 2012 and Mandarin Chinese went from 3,273 candidates in 2011 to 3,425 last year. Figures for Arabic, Japanese and Russian have also climbed.

This shows there is a shift between learning languages as an additional skill and learning languages as a skill necessary for future employment. The less traditional modern foreign languages listed above are all spoken in areas of the world where industry, and therefore business, is growing fast; students are now seeing the practical applications of language which, unfortunately, makes many of the long standing linguistic monoliths, such as French, German and Italian, less appealing.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, has made an appeal to universities by asking them to promote languages. Since modern students seem to prefer subjects that have a clear path into the world of work, emphasising the practical applications of language to young people’s future careers is the best way to promote the study of languages.

The Silver Lining

Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA exam board, is worried about the effects this trend will have on future generations, accepting the fact there is no ‘quick fix’, but welcomes the government’s move to introduce languages to primary school children.

Primary school pupilsHowever, this raises the age old question; how do you teach something as complex as languages without boring a class to tears?

Technology is the answer. Primary schools across the UK, and in many countries across the world, are investing in all manner of devices, from interactive whiteboards to iPads and iPhones. An entrepreneur from New York, Jesse Pickard, saw this as an opportunity to launch an educational app called MindSnacks.

Since its launch in 2010, the San Francisco-based company has produced language learning apps suited to all ages and abilities; they are highly visual games that teach specific skills like word connotation and sentence composition. Players are updated on their progress on a weekly basis, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. To date, MindSnacks apps have been downloaded 5 million times.

At the moment, the languages offered are Spanish, Italian, French, German, Portuguese, and Mandarin Chinese, but more are on the way; the company is also soon to launch subject-specific learning apps for Maths and Science. After a pilot scheme in US primary schools, it was found that children’s grades rose by 10%, thanks to the fun, interactive learning experience offered by MindSnacks.

These results speak for themselves. In a highly technological age, where the younger generations are often more able to use new devices, it would seem foolish to avoid using these advances to reverse the decrease in language learning. Many other subjects have received the digital treatment over the last decade; now languages can enter the digital age, shedding their old-fashioned, dusty image to hopefully produce more culturally aware future generations.

Do you think schools should invest in more up-to-date technology for language learning? Will it make a positive difference to future generations? Let us know in the comments below.

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