Claire Baty, Head of French at Wimbledon High School, considers the importance of spontaneous speech in the Modern Foreign Language classroom.
Like many a Modern Foreign Language teacher at this time of year, I have spent the last few weeks conducting oral exams. I like this opportunity to work with my students individually. I see oral exams as the chance to shine, to show off all the hard-work done during the year. It’s the only exam that the student is in control of, that they can steer down their path of choice. So why then, do the students have such opposing views? They hate oral exams. Clearly nerves are natural, let’s face it, no one relishes being put on the spot and being recorded at the same time. But the problem goes deeper than simply being nervous about an exam. There is often a big discrepancy between the quality of written work compared to the quality of spoken work. A student who can write at length using a range of subordinate clauses and move comfortably between time frames, reverts to simplistic sentences or one-word utterances when asked to speak spontaneously. Many a time has a parent expressed frustration at their daughter’s inability or unwillingness to speak in the target language when on holiday, despite their excellent grades in MFL at school.
Why is any of this important, you might ask. If the students are getting good results, then does it matter? I would argue that yes, it matters a lot. As a French teacher it is my job to enable my students to communicate, and true communication is not about writing an essay, learning it off by heart and reciting it under exam conditions. True communication is the desire to share experiences and ideas with others. In the words of Nelson Mandela “If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart”. Only by speaking to someone in their own language can we truly begin to understand them, their identity and culture.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart”.
Moreover, speaking another language enables you to experience different attitudes to life, relationships, food and environment. Adam Jacot de Boinod makes this point succinctly in the books “The meaning of Tingo” and “Toujours Tingo”. He states that words change the way we see the world. Take for example that in Hawaiian kapau’u means ‘to drive fish into the waiting net by striking the water with a leafy branch’. In Inuit, pukajaw means ‘firm snow that is easy to cut and provides warm shelter’. Jacot de Boinod realised that sometimes a dictionary can tell you more about a culture than a guidebook. (The meaning of Tingo, Adam Jacot de Boinod, p.ix, Penguin Books 2005). My students know this; they want to travel the world and be international citizens. They can see the importance of linguistic knowledge and cultural awareness in the workplace, and it is our job to guide them towards a more spontaneous approach to communication.
Whilst teenage anxiety plays a part in making students reluctant to speak in the target language, it is by no means the only cause. Confident, able students resist our advice to move away from pre-learnt speeches. There is a notable disjuncture between the language needed for a speaking exam in Key Stage 4 and the phrases that would be helpful as a tourist in the country. Whilst the new GCSE specifications go some way towards addressing this, the lack of requirement for transactional language means our students can converse at length about their holiday plans or environmental problems in their local area, but struggle if someone stops them in the street and asks for the time, they panic if the waiter in the café doesn’t stick to his side of the role play when ordering a chocolat chaud! Infrequent lessons in an artificial classroom environment further compound this difficulty, not at all helped by the fact that when the students do muster up the courage to speak in French, the French have a tendency to reply in English.
Guy Claxton, an academic, a cognitive scientist and leading educationalist specialising in well-founded ways of enhancing intelligence, spoke to us recently about The Learning Power Approach and the importance of teaching learners to teach themselves. He made a number of points that resonated with me in terms of their pertinence in this discussion. Firstly, that it is our job as language teachers to equip the girls with the traits and skills to cope outside of the classroom, to be independent enough to flourish. Secondly, if we want students to be able to do something, then we have to coach it, build it up gradually by providing them with structured opportunities to speak spontaneously:
- Key phrases on the wall and learning mats to help build complexity into spontaneity
- The use of listening exercises to model the language we want the students to use rather than just to assess their understanding of a topic
- Effective vocabulary Focussing on verbs to enable responses in complete sentences.
- Scaffolding is necessary in Y7 and 8 to build confidence.
- Target language use needs to be built into classroom routines and bravery must be rewarded.
- Support should be gradually withdrawn in Y9 so that by Y11 spontaneity is more likely.
These practices are essential to good language teaching, they are the bones of our lesson plans. But whilst they might encourage pupils to talk, do they encourage spontaneous speech? Gianfranco Conti, PhD and co-author of ‘The Language Teacher toolkit’, winner of the 2015 TES best resource contributor award and founder of www.language-gym.com would argue that true spontaneous speech is without prompts. “[speaking tips] refer but to the very embryonal stage of spontaneous talk, what […] I refer to as the ‘imitative’ stage. However, in order to bring our learners from the ability to ‘parrot’ phrases on the wall or on writing mats to what applied linguists call ‘autonomous speaking competence’ it takes way more”. We need to expose our students to native speakers, whether that be through trips, language assistants, other bilingual students or simply authentic audio and visual material such as radio, music and films. We need to encourage peer to peer interaction and exercises that focus on the communication of a message and less on the accuracy. Cloze exercises, speed dating conversations and dictagloss should be prioritised.
Here at WHS, Modern Foreign Languages are hugely popular. Students enjoy the variety of an MFL lesson and the satisfaction gained from learning something brand new. French, German and Spanish continue to be popular choices at GCSE and A Level. Speaking exams will always be nerve-wracking but I would like my students to feel proud when they can confidently develop their answers. I would like them to experience a sense of joy at being completely understood when speaking French in France. I want to enable them to speak with the same enthusiasm and conviction with which they express ideas in their mother-tongue. Above all I would like my pupils to want to communicate at every given opportunity. Ce n’est pas la mer à boire, non?