Towards a History of Modern Foreign Language Teaching and Learning (MFLTL)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: German Studies


(Highlight: Translating Cultures)
Modern foreign language (MFL) education - the basis for building the UK's capacity in translation and interpreting at the highest levels of international cooperation - has, over the last century, never matched the UK's need to represent its interests in European and global communication. The number of pupils taking German at 16 is now lower than in 1985, and for French as low as in 1965. Spanish, predicted since the 1918 Leathes Report to take off because of its economic importance, has done so only in the last decade. Russian - introduced in schools more widely in the Cold War - has remained a niche subject, despite the fact that it has 150 million speakers. Chinese - with over a billion speakers - is still merely listed under "other modern languages" in GCSE statistics.
MFL educators, who bear a heavy responsibility in developing capacity, have a sense of crisis in the face of this mismatch between strategic needs and MFL provision and take-up. Yet neither policy, nor curricula, nor the methods to deliver curricula in the classroom, can be developed without an awareness of the history of MFL, which tells us what measures have been tried, and with what success, to promote particular languages, or particular approaches to language learning (including translation), in primary, secondary, tertiary, or lifelong education settings.
Some historical awareness of how and why modern languages have been taught and learnt should be part of the training of any language teacher and of policy development. Yet in the UK, the history of the teaching of modern languages is badly under-researched, a statement that despite the lone three-chapter survey of Hawkins' Modern Languages in the Curriculum (1987) - is as true today as when Stern observed it in his authoritative textbook for trainee teachers, Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching (1983). The situation contrasts with the situation elsewhere in Europe. In Germany, for example, the history of language teaching is a substantive field, complete with its own subject bibliographies. Elsewhere, there are separate associations for the history of teaching in specific countries (APHELLE and SEHEL for Portugal and Spain, CIRSIL for Italy, PHG for the Netherlands) and for the history of teaching individual languages (such as SIHFLES for French). All of this is lacking in the UK. In order to address this lack, our research network will bring together researchers in the UK with an interest in the history of Modern Foreign Language education - historians, linguists, and MFL specialists - with colleagues already active in the field in Europe, with two objectives to meet the overall aim of informing future MFL policy and capacity development:
1. sharing methodologies and findings, with the long-term goal of writing the history of modern language learning in the UK, and
2. working towards a history of European modern foreign language education that transcends national and subject boundaries.
Funding will be used to run two workshops and a conference. The workshops, one each in Nottingham and Warwick, will allow British researchers to learn from the work of leading researchers from each of four separate language traditions (French, German, Spanish, English as a Foreign Language) and eight national traditions (France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Italy, UK).
The international conference, to be held in Nottingham, will be the first ever conference in the UK devoted to the history of MFL education. It will include themed panels developed during and after the workshops, and will be open to the public as well as to researchers and teaching practitioners.
Papers from the two workshops will be submitted as special issues to two peer-reviewed journals. A volume of selected papers from the conference will be submitted after peer review to the leading publisher Multilingual Matters.

Planned Impact

At least three constituencies are likely to be interested in the research resulting from the proposed network on the history of MFL teaching and learning:

1. Teachers, teacher-trainers and trainee teachers: Some historical awareness of how and why modern languages have been taught and learnt should form part of the training of any language teacher, providing the background against which to evaluate critically current developments. The research will therefore be of interest and value to all those involved in the teaching of modern languages in the UK (and globally), as well as to teacher-trainers and trainee teachers.

2. Policy-makers in education at all levels: Policy development in MFL education should take place against an awarenss of what has already been tried in the UK and elsewhere, and its success or failure. Therefore all those involved in MFL policy - at whatever level - should gain insights from the results of the research.

3. The wider public: The research produced by the network is likely to be of considerable interest to the wider public nationally and internationally, especially to those who have learnt a language at any stage in their lives. It complements other work on the history of education such as the History in Education project at the Institute for Historical Research, which has had considerable public involvement and public impact (e.g via a Radio 4 documentary). The PI's current research on the history of German learning in the UK has already attracted the interest of many members of the public, who have contributed to the project and/or who have heard the PI on the radio; that same broad constituency will find the research resulting from this network of similar relevance.


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Description We have developed a large international network of colleagues working on the history of foreign langauge learning and teaching, starting from a small workshop in December 2012, where we met for the first time, culiminating in an international conference of 120 participants in July 2014, resulting in (we anticipate) a 3-volume series of high-quality refereed scholarly articles.
Exploitation Route Provide an informed context for future decision-making about language teaching learng policy and practice; inform social history and history
A core group from the network are taking forward plans to develop a larger, international network and subsequent funding applications
Sectors Education

Description The findings have been used in training PGCE students (e.g via posters available online, and in three x 2-hour sessions for Nottingham modern languages PGCE students, 2015, 2016, 2017) - we hope that they will, once all outputs have been published, have a significant impact on the way PGCE teacher educators, teachers and trainee teachers approach decision making about what and how to teach. Two fully open-access special issues (Language & History 2014, Language Learning Journal 2018) have made key findings accessible to a wide audience of teachers, teacher trainers, etc. One of the 2014 articles, by Co-Investigator Smith, on the history of English as a foreign language, has now been viewed 32652 times. The 2018 special issue introduction has had 605 views since publication three weeks ago; my article on the history of language teaching in Britain has had 437 views.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Education
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Contribution to teacher training (MFL; also MA Chinese as a Foreign Language)
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Description British Academdy Mid Career Fellowship
Amount £100,000 (GBP)
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2015 
End 01/2016
Description Invited Keynote Languages World conference of Association for Language Learning (Lancaster 2014) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact ca. 50 attended, with follow up questions and discussions

networking with colleagues working on lobbying in raising demand for modern languages
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Keynote, British Chinese Language Teachers Assocation, 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation on the history of Chinese language learning and teaching in theUK to HE teachers of Chinese, encouraging reflection on how Chinese and China has been presented to British learners, and thus greater critical reflection on own teachingpractice as teachers of Chinese
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Keynote, Confucius Institutes of UK annual conference, Nottingham 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation on the history of the learning and teaching of Chinese in the UK to Confucius Institute teachers from China come over to teach for a year in the UK
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Lecture to PGCE students Nottingham 2015, 2016, 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact two-hour session (lecture + workshop) on the history of modern languages education in the UK, including reflection on how understanding past developments allows critical reflection on present goals, priorities, policies and methods. Tailored to PGCE language teacher-trainees (now over three years), who go on to become language teachers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016,2017
Description Session for teachers, teacher educators & and PGCE students at international academic conference on history of language learning 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact PGCE students and newly qualified teachers reported that they really appreciated the wider context for the langauge curricuulum and policies that they are trained to implement - the knowlwege that "other opinions are available"

Have been asked to contribute a lecture on the history of modern language education to the current PGCE programme in Nottingham (in Germany, there would be a whole module on the historical context - this one lecture it a start, in the UK)
On the basis of feedback from those at the workshop, I have restructured the book I am due to write - an accessible history of Modern language learning in the UK (funded by BA mid-career fellowship) - to dovetail better with the ways that the intended readership is likely to want to use it.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014