Every one of us has our own route to, and through, our language learning journey. However, in Wales, fewer and fewer learners are choosing to keep going on their journeys, with this year being no exception. The figures that have been highlighted again by Language Trends Wales in 2020, albeit in unusual circumstances, show a further fall in those opting to sit a GCSE or A Level in an international language.
But there has been no shortage of initiatives by Welsh Government, schools and external organisations to promote language learning around the country. As well as concerted efforts to shine a light on Wales’ potential as a bilingual nation to be an example of good practice in this area. So how exactly can these initiatives help address the decline?
In this article I discuss my ongoing PhD research, which explores the role of outreach initiatives in the movement to promote foreign language learning here in Wales. By focusing on one aspect of the Routes into Languages Cymru initiative; the use of ambassadorial schemes to facilitate peer influence, I will demonstrate the potential role outreach has to play in supporting schools and learners to find their ‘route’ into and through language learning.
Researching outreach initiatives
In recent years outreach initiatives have featured prominently in the UK as a tool for promoting language learning, with significant use of them reported by teachers in Wales . As opposed to sitting in the education system, they are located externally, often hosted by universities, and bring together many key actors in the field to create collaborative advocacy networks and diverse programmes of activities.
In general, it is believed that initiatives like this can change learner motivation and attitudes towards languages, and they are often highly valued by the schools taking part . Nevertheless, research beyond the possible measurable effectiveness of such interventions has been limited up until now. There is less understanding about the processes and experiences involved, which can help assess their potential impact going forward and maximise this across diverse contexts. This is particularly important in the Welsh context, with its distinct educational and linguistic landscape, and motivational environment for learners. Understanding ‘how’ these projects have an influence is an important next step in order to ensure their sustainability and effectiveness in the future.
Routes into Languages Cymru
Among the most notable outreach initiatives in Wales (and the UK) is Routes into Languages (Cymru). Routes Cymru is a ‘collaborative outreach project that aims to increase the number of pupils choosing MFL by promoting the visibility, uptake and profile of modern languages in Wales’.
Routes Cymru has a pan-Wales remit and is hosted and funded through five Welsh universities (with its main hubs at Cardiff University and Bangor University). The project also receives funding through Wales’ four regional education consortia as part of Global Futures , and from British Council Wales. It organises a wide range of activities for schools including A-level master classes, language conferences and events.
By far its most popular activities are its two language ambassador schemes; Student Language Ambassadors (SLA) and Pupil Language Ambassadors (PLA), which are the focus of my research. Both schemes train ambassadors to promote language learning to their ‘peers’ either by visiting schools (SLAs) or organising activities within their own schools (PLAs). But what is it about this model which is particularly popular, and helps facilitate the promotion of language learning?
Motivating learning: the value of peer interaction
In the case of SLAs, the university students who take on the role are seen to ‘occupy an in-between position between teachers and pupils’ . This means that while visiting schools to deliver talks or provide classroom support, they can establish a more equal and less formal relationship with pupils. This in turn helps them to gain the trust of pupils while sharing their reasons for learning languages.
The promotion of language learning in schools is inextricably linked to the experiences of pupils in the classroom and beyond, including disengagement with the subject and the influence of societal attitudes. Although this can pose challenges in the form of demotivated learners, here too the role of an SLA can help. The proximity in age brings approachability to the role and establishes a perception of shared experience; ‘same situation (…) same hardships’ . In the case of language learning, where its perceived difficulty is a barrier to many, the openness and honesty of SLAs around their own journeys can provide hope and inspiration to younger learners.
What’s more, SLAs can often bring with them experiences, languages and cultures which may otherwise not be shared in the classroom. In 2019/20 alone, the SLAs trained through the Routes Cymru project were users of at least 12 different languages in addition to Welsh and English. Not only can they draw connections between these languages, but also broaden pupils’ perceptions of the diverse possible routes through learning a language. This fits closely with the multilingual approach outlined in Global Futures and the Curriculum for Wales 2022 .
While SLAs occupy a space between pupils and teachers, PLAs are at once learners and ambassadors in the space that they operate. They comprise of Key Stage 3 pupils, trained to promote language learning to their own age group. PLAs are somewhat unique in this role, with little or no examples on them being used in similar initiatives elsewhere.
The potential influence of the PLA scheme is closely linked to the influence of peer groups on academic motivation and achievement through ‘peer modelling and reinforcement’ . This is particularly true during adolescence, the age of PLAs, and means they look to each for approval in their actions and decisions. However, at times peer influence can highlight difference as well as similarity. This suggests that choice of PLA and activity are important considerations in this scheme in order to ensure they provide a positive reference group for others.
Given the importance of peers at this age, arguably PLAs are best placed to understand the motivations of their fellow pupils, and design relevant promotional activities. That being said, the role can be considered as much about motivating the PLAs themselves as those around them. The scheme provides PLAs with an opportunity to ‘play leadership roles’ in their school, something which is often absent for those at this age and provides a sense of belonging and status.
As part of my research I am exploring some of these aspects of the SLA and PLA roles, looking at whether they are reflected in the experiences of those taking part in the project currently.
Mapping the onward journey
Recent years have shown that reversing the decline of language learners in Wales is not the work of one sector or one group alone and will not be resolved overnight.
As well as bringing a number of stakeholders together into a collaborative model, projects such as Routes Cymru involves learners themselves in the promotion of language learning. My research aims to show the importance of providing learners with the opportunity to input into this process, as those who have the most recent experience of navigating the journey themselves.