A lot is said and claimed by all sorts of people (including me) about the causes of declining numbers in MFL. Participants in the debate are variously teachers, former teachers, teacher trainers, politicians and various other commentators.
But the more important conversation is what we should do about it. Here again, there are some familiar, well-rehearsed responses. But what does the evidence actually tell us? What do we actually know about motivation and subject choice within MFL, and what do we need to find out next?
Here’s a literature review I did. I wanted to find out what research has been done that would confirm or challenge my core belief that we need to fundamentally redesign and radically enrich the MFL curriculum, with a renewed focus on cultural learning.
Enjoy, react, share, discuss!
Language learning in British schools is in a parlous state. A parliamentary review in 2016 found that only 49% of eligible year 11 pupils were entered for an MFL GCSE (Bauckham, 2016: 8), down from 76% only 14 years earlier (Tinsley and Dolezal 2018: 3). There were 120,605 French GCSE entries in 2018 (Ofqual 2018: 3): shockingly, this is lower than the 147,657 entries for French GCE O-level in 1985 (Hawkins 1987: 66), despite the fact that GCSE is intended to be ‘universal’ whereas O level was considered a qualification only for the highest attainers. At A-level, sharp declines in uptake took place during the 1990s (Tinsley and Dolezal 2018: 4). Entries then fell by 63% in French and German between 2006 and 2016 (Bauckham 2016: 7). In 1985, there were 22,140 entries for French A-level (Hawkins 1987: 67), yet in 2018 this figure was merely 7,945 (Ofqual 2018a: 8). Eurostat (2019) found that the UK lagged well behind all other EU countries (including Ireland, the only other English-speaking nation in the bloc).
The decision by the New Labour Government to make MFL optional at GCSE explains why the figure was able to fall so steeply, but it does not explain the subject’s unpopularity. Nor does this decision account for the steep decline in A-level uptake in the decade beforehand. Stakeholders such as the Association for Language Learning report that main cause of the decline in MFL is so-called “severe-grading” (Black et al 2018: 57), a view corroborated by headteachers in a recent survey by the BBC (BBC 2019, online). Ofqual, though, rejects the claims that grading severity is to blame for the decline in MFL (Black et al 2018: 5), finding that MFL subjects are not in fact the most difficult out of common subjects, and that statistical measures to compare difficulty between subjects are flawed. Furthermore, Ofqual suggests that motivation of students and the quality of teaching and learning may have greater bearing on examination performance, and that other factors account for the low popularity of languages.
This period of decline has taken place within a dominant pedagogical orthodoxy known as “communicative language teaching” (Dörnyei 2013), in which the overarching learning goal is the acquisition of the target language for practical communicative purposes. Indeed, the former Department for Education and Science concluded that everyday communication – rather than culture, literature, grammar or linguistics – should be the prime purpose of learning a foreign language in the early 1980s (Dickson 1986: 3). This notion of language learning being purely about “communication” and ‘utility’, without its corresponding cultural, social and historical content, was an entirely new concept in the 1980s (McLelland 2015: 168), marking a point of rupture in over a century of tradition of language learning in British schools. In the technological age and in a world where the hegemony of global English is undisputed, I hypothesise that this communicative paradigm for language-learning in the UK is faltering.
Curiously, the National Curriculum would suggest that cultural content remains integral to language teaching. In 1999, the curriculum stated that through MFL, “pupils understand and appreciate different countries, cultures, people and communities” (DfEE and QCA, 1999: 14). The equivalent 2014 document asserts that MFL is “a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures” (DfE 2014: 98). However, the reality in English classrooms is quite different. Of the 240 marks available at GCSE in MFL, all of these are for use and understanding of language alone – and not a single mark is awarded for knowledge of or response to culture in any form.
What does the evidence tell us, and where do the research gaps lie? The existing literature
Motivation in MFL
The body of research into motivation within MFL is extensive. Dörnyei (2014: 519) defines a motivation as being responsible for “why people to decide to do something, how long they are willing to sustain the activity and how hard they are going to pursue it” – in other words as choice, persistence and effort. Early motivation studies in languages in the 1950s and 1960s (such as Carroll (1962)) focussed on attitudinal aspects of motivation. Gardner’s (1985: 9-10) proposed a framework whereby motivation in MFL sits on a continuum from instrumental (learning languages because they are useful) to integrative (learning languages because of an affection for the speakers and culture of that language).
Dörnyei has advanced the field of motivation studies in MFL considerably, developing the notion that motivation is not static but dynamic between languages and over time (Dörnyei 2001a: 86), combining external factors, individual factors and the learning experience. Dörnyei also (2001b: 29) published a model of motivational teaching practice within MFL, which incorporates strategies relating to the classroom environment and the teacher’s pedagogy, not the curriculum, which he does not consider. Dörnyei (2008, 2014) has since further developed his theory, suggesting that language learners’ motivation derives from a sense of their “ideal self” (‘I want to be multilingual’) and their “ought-to self” (I need to learn languages), and that teachers can plan to nourish and strengthen these self-concepts within their lessons. But in much of this research, the language being learned was in fact English, and only in 2017 did Dörnyei begin to test the robustness of his frameworks in reference to non-English foreign languages, finding that other languages lack the “unconscious appeal” (Dörnyei and Al-Hoorie 2017: 463) that English has. This means that motivation for learning other languages, such as here in the UK, may be even more complex, a finding echoed by Lanvers (2017).
Motivation has been found to be lower among boys, particularly after year 7 (Williams et al 2002), but Guilloteaux and Dörnyei (2008) have evidenced that teacher practices can positively influence student motivation. Taylor and Marsden (2014) found that one-off interventions such as panel discussions about the value of languages, or visiting teachers delivering lessons, can have modest effects on motivation, although much of their evidence was inconclusive, and their quantitative methods precluded an exploration of pupils’ more nuanced responses. Coleman et al (2007) found that students in schools where senior teams had made a visible commitment to MFL (such as through specialist school status) were better motivated in the subject. Bolster (2009) and Courtney (2018), meanwhile, cite unsatisfactory transitions from primary to secondary school as a cause of poor motivation. Parrish (2019) found that motivation may be low because the wrong languages are on offer in schools.
The weakness of this body of research is that it studies motivation in isolation within MFL, at a given moment in time. Indeed, Dörnyei (2019: 25) explains that he believes ‘engagement’ to be the best way to measure student motivation as related to their learning experience. While a range of robust measures are used to do so, such an approach does not allow us to explore or explain subject choice and uptake. MFL teachers will be familiar with the image of highly motivated students – who would score highly on the instruments used by the aforementioned authors – who nevertheless choose not to study MFL. To answer my research question, it is necessary to consider motivation not in terms of momentary attitudes or engagement, but in terms of students’ propensity to select MFL above other subjects in an options process. This is a big omission from the motivation literature, and only when motivation is studied in terms which are comparative with other subjects, in the context of the subject marketplace, will this research truly help address the decline in uptake.
The MFL curriculum and the role of culture
Various bodies and academics have considered why MFL uptake may be in decline and some indeed recognise the need to address fundamental curriculum issues. Coyle (2000, 2007) find the curriculum to be irrelevant, reductive and held back by its low cognitive demands. Cuff (2017: 3) found that students’ subject choices were driven by enjoyment and perceived usefulness rather than perceptions of relative difficulty, a finding corroborated by Panayiotou et al (2017: 8). Commissioned by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), Ipsos Mori (2014: 32) specifically identified that students found the GCSE course content disengaging.
Exploring MFL in primary schools, Driscoll et all (2013) find that while the intent for cultural learning – my area of interest – is clear in the National Curriculum, it is not systemically planned for or embedded in classrooms. Hennebry (2014) identifies that there is still a debate about what ‘culture’ might mean in MFL: high culture such as literature or intercultural skills more broadly. Either way, he finds that culture plays a much lesser role in UK MFL provision compared to other European countries. Lawes (2017) continues, meanwhile, to make the case for high culture much earlier on in UK MFL curricula, and regrets that culture within MFL has been a “neglected area” of teaching, “ignored by policy makers” (Lawes 2014: 88)
Curriculum as a means to boost motivation
There is a limited research which considers the motivational impact of the rebalancing of MFL curricula towards culture. Particularly in the United States, this is increasingly seen as a priority: Furstenberg (2010: 300) asserts that cultural aspects of language-learning should become the “main objective” of teaching, with “communicative competence” moving into second place, echoing calls by the American Modern Language Association (Modern Language Association 2007: 235) and other prominent US academics such as Schechtman and Koser (2008). Barrette et al (2010) present an integrated curriculum approach which develops transcultural and linguistic competence, arguing that with judicious selection of associated tasks, a full range of cultural texts can and should be tackled from the early stages of language-learning.
In a UK context, research into Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), whereby students learn other curriculum subjects in the target language, report that such an approach is very positively received by students, owing to its increased cognitive demand and greater relevance (Bower 2019, Hunt 2011). CLIL is, however, an approach adopted by a tiny minority of schools.
Peiser and Jones (2013) explored the appeal of intercultural learning with Key Stage 3 pupils in England, only to find that such an approach had limit appeal. There were, however, three key flaws with their research. Firstly, the notion of intercultural learning was presented to students in a survey as “spend more time learning about life in other countries in MFL lessons” (ibid.: 349); this is arguably a woeful understatement of what intercultural learning is, and we have no way of knowing what respondents understood this phrase to mean. Secondly, pupils responded in the survey to questions about the appeal of intercultural learning without ever having experienced what it might be: I would argue, therefore, that they were in a poor position to answer such questions. Thirdly, there was no qualitative follow up to explore the reasons behind students’ responses.
Robinson-Stuart and Nocon (1996) publish contrasting findings, which indicate that intercultural learning had hugely positive outcomes in terms of learners’ motivation and propensity to pursue their linguistic studies. Unlike Peiser’s research, these students had actually experienced intercultural learning when their opinions were sought. More recently, Windham (2017) found that the study of culture made students far more likely to want to pursue their studies of German, noting that cultural instruction provided both intrinsic and integrative motivational value, as well as instrumental value (ibid.: 88). This study is powerful as it measures motivation partly by asking directly whether students intend to continue to study the subject (a crucial metric for anybody interested in reviving MFL participation in English schools) and because, again, it is based on students’ experiences of, not perceptions of, cultural learning. The students in this study were, however, undergraduates in the USA.
In summary, the literature illustrates that while motivation is a widely researched issue within MFL, it tends to focus on motivation and engagement in isolation within the subject, as opposed to in a manner which is relative to other subjects. Understanding motivation and appeal relative to other subjects is critical if the goal is to boost MFL uptake within a subject choice marketplace. The literature confirms that curriculum is likely to be one cause of low uptake, and we note, also, that curriculum, in particular the restoration of intercultural content into MFL, is under-researched as a key variable affecting motivation. The small amount of relevant research to date had significant weaknesses or has been conducted with undergraduate students only. This research in the USA focussing on undergraduates gives grounds for great optimism: I conclude tgat research now needs to take place to determine whether such findings may be replicated in a UK secondary school setting. Such research should seek answers to the following question:
Does a more blended curriculum incorporating culture alongside language may motivate learners to choose to pursue MFL at a higher level? If so, in what ways and to what extent? Specifically:
- What do students think the purpose of language learning is, and where has this perception come from?
- How do students respond to a blended/integrated curriculum of language and culture?
- Does this experience change their perceptions on the purpose or value of language learning?
- Does this experience change their intentions to study MFL at a higher level? Why (not)?
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