The teaching of languages seems to be part problem – a Greek word – part paradox – a Greek word – and part conundrum – a mongrel of a word with no obvious lineage.
On the one hand, everyone agrees that the learning of languages is of great importance, whether in human or economic terms. On the other hand, everyone agrees that the learning of languages in the UK isn’t really working, all the way from the primary curriculum to university numbers.
On the third hand – if there is such a thing – pupils in our schools, whether state or independent, have never been richer in their linguistic and cultural knowledge. And that’s as true of an inner-city primary school as it is of a global boarding school or an international school.
“Pupils in our schools have never been richer in their linguistic and cultural knowledge.”
Perhaps the illogicality of it all is clearest as pupils pass from primary to secondary schools. In England those pupils have sometimes studied languages for four years and yet at secondary schools many go back to the beginning again. They must think it odd, if we bothered to ask them, and perhaps even odder for bilingual, even multilingual children who don’t even get the chance even to share the languages they know.
However, there is a solution to this riddle and it’s called the WoLLoW — World of Languages and Languages of the World — curriculum, and it has an Egyptian blue faience hippo as its logo. Instead of teaching a single language in Years 3 to 6 (and beyond) WoLLoW teaches about languages, how they work, where they come from, and how they are related to each other. It helps pupils see how valuable they are for other subjects such as English, maths, science, history, empire and migration.
It also aims to encourage dialectic rather than the didactic curiosity, thought and enjoyment rather than just fact-based learning. And, in particular, WoLLoW encourages pupils to talk about, value and use their own heritage languages. Thereby, it is hoped that pupils will be enthused by languages and prepared for study of specific languages in secondary school.
“It also aims to encourage dialectic rather than the didactic, curiosity, thought and enjoyment.”
For example, a lesson on days of the week doesn’t involve learning by rote or singing a “days of the week” song. It starts by asking some questions we ask too rarely, such as “why is it Tuesday today?” – and other days are available.
This can and will lead us into planets and the Vikings for a start but then we can cross over into other languages, French, Spanish, Italian, German and see patterns and similarities between Thor and jeudi/giovedi/jueves and, best of all, Donnerstag — literally “Thunderday”.
And we can talk of the sabbath in “sabato” and the Lord’s Day in “domingo” and the Judaeo-Christian tradition supplants those Viking and Roman deities. However, it doesn’t and shouldn’t stop there. Sitting in front of us will be pupils of differing languages, cultures and religions and the fun really starts when they can teach everyone else what they know — or can find out. And we might even end up asking why there are seven days in the week, anyway.
“The fun really starts when they can teach everyone else what they know.”
WoLLoW has plenty more such wizardry, enough to provide two or three years’ language curriculum and is also wondrous in its flexibility: it can be used as the language curriculum itself, or alongside the teaching of a language, or as the basis for a languages/linguistics club, or as the resources for independent state partnership work, or even as part of form period or PSHE. And it doesn’t even need a specialist language teacher. And it’s free and adaptable and it works. As one teacher put it:
‘We have a wide diversity in our school and lots of pupils who have suppressed their culture. And now it is like a spring flower opening. They love sharing their knowledge and cultural background. Every single child in Year 6 now lights up and the ones that potentially never used to be involved in languages at all now raise their hands and are really interested. The pupils feel involved in their language learning and that inspires me.’
WoLLoW resources have already been downloaded in between 400 and 500 schools since they were made available to all in September 2021 and we know at least 40 to 50 schools are already using the package seriously.
If you want to know more, we are holding a conference at King Edward’s School, Birmingham on Tuesday March 2. It will be a meeting of minds from both the school and university sectors and is a great way to find out more. Sign up to attend here. Alternatively, you can visit our website.
Details of the conference are in the official invite here: WoLLoW National Conference Invite – 10.02.23 (1)