Mike Piercy, education consultant and former Head of The New Beacon, turns language pupil

A favourite word: smellfungus. A favourite book: The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (two weighty tomes). A favourite pursuit: looking up a word, getting distracted by other, hitherto unknown words and fascinated by them. That’s how I found smellfungus – I love language.
Last year I tried to learn Italian – tried being the operative word. My Venetian tutor, Pietro, arrived for my first lesson (late), immediately spouting a burble of words exceeding the Italian speed limit. As per protocol he taught in the target language. His willing student was often clearly baffled, trying to ignore Pietro’s barely concealed, impatient, sometimes exasperated expression. In the third lesson he gave me a printed handout, though it quickly became apparent he had not looked at it prior to the lesson. The fourth lesson, my bewilderment growing, I spoke in English asking him to explain the grammar and we began to make some progress. Having taught for many years and witnessed many others’ teaching, this was a lesson in how not to do it.
The experience did, however, give me a far more empathic understanding of how challenging it can be for pupils to learn another language (and, for some, our own language). As a nation we are perhaps a little lazy in learning other languages as we expect English to be understood across the nations and globe. That aside, the process of learning a language is an important one for students. A modern language is compulsory for schools at Key Stage 3 (11-14) but not at KS4, with overall numbers taking a modern language GCSE declining over recent years.
French is traditionally the predominant modern language taught in schools. Globally, Spanish is more widely spoken and some schools have in recent years introduced Mandarin. Latin and Greek, the classics, are now somewhat fringe yet they have enormous value in lending understanding to modern language. A reader of this magazine recently wrote to me about a project which sees Esperanto spreading across schools in Africa. Music, referenced last month, has a language of its own and in recent years coding has grown like wildfire becoming another modern language.
Students outgrow their uniforms. The school curriculum has outgrown the day with important additions: personal, social, health education, design technology and computer science to name but three. There are only so many hours in a school day, however, and something has to be squeezed. The humanities sometimes pay the price, as do languages – some might question the need when software packages do the translation for you; yet that isn’t the point. Learning another language is an important academic discipline. Sentence construction, the acquisition of grammar, can only improve the correct use of our own language, never mind the wider, cultural benefits.
Aged ten I had an inspirational French teacher. He would drag us from a dusty, dull classroom to the sports field where he taught us The Marseillaise. He told the history of the anthem which enthused us to bellow all the louder – we lived the music and words, learning the translation and grammar along the way. Then I think of the pitiful Pietro. It was humbling for the teacher to become pupil, struggling over grammar and vocabulary – I felt for him in that respect. He did, however, give a fine lesson in how not to teach, ill-prepared, impatient, lacking in vim and vigour.
I salute those who teach languages in our schools, adopting strategies and multimedia to enhance learning – so much easier today – and encourage our young people to persist with language learning. How do we differ from other species? Imagination, reasoning, emotion and the nuance of language – now there’s a debate!
Smellfungus: a grumbler, a fault-finder.
Contact Mike with your education-related queries at mikepiercy@hotmail.com

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