Parents’ beliefs about languages had almost twice as much influence on children as the opinions of their teachers, and were also significantly more influential than the views of their peers.
According to a study by the University of Cambridge, children’s willingness to study subjects like French, German, or Spanish is shaped far more by the attitudes of their parents than by teachers or friends.
Researchers surveyed more than 1,300 Year 8 students, aged 12 to 13, to understand what makes them self-identify as “multilingual” – as being capable of learning and using other languages.
The responses revealed that their parents’ beliefs about languages had almost twice as much influence as the opinions of their teachers, and were also significantly more influential than the views of their peers.
Across the UK, the number of teenagers learning a language has dropped in the last two decades.
The combined total number of pupils taking French, German, Spanish, and other Modern Languages GCSEs last year was almost half that of 2001.
According to the study, which is published in the International Journal of Multilingualism, parental attitudes help pupils who are still forming a view about languages decide whether these subjects matter personally to them.
The researchers found that pupils are more likely to consider themselves multilingual if they identify with languages at this personal level and see them as relevant to their own lives.
Professor Linda Fisher, from the faculty of education at the University of Cambridge, said: “Students’ personal commitment to languages is determined by their experiences, their beliefs, and their emotional response to speaking or using them. Slightly surprisingly, the people who feed into that most appear to be their parents.
“This can be a positive or negative influence depending on the parents’ own views. Its importance underlines the fact that if we want more young people to learn languages, we need to pay attention to wider social and cultural attitudes to languages beyond the classroom. Waning interest in these subjects is a public communication challenge; it’s not just about what happens in schools.”
In England, the teaching of languages is set to be overhauled so that teenagers focus on learning a set of up to 1,700 frequently used words in GCSE French, German, and Spanish.
However, Professor Fisher said she believed this change to be wrongheaded. “There’s no evidence that if you just focus on the mechanics – phonics, grammar, and so on – you’re going to motivate students or, for that matter, teachers,” she said.
“Students need to discover what languages mean to them, which means they also need to learn about culture, identity, and self-expression. Simply drilling verb forms into them will only persuade a swathe of the school population that these subjects are not for them. That is especially likely if their parents don’t value languages either.”
(The materials for the post were taken from https://www.all-languages.org.uk and belong to their rightful owners)