“The traditional method of teaching English isn’t working”

Project-based language learning method with focus on culture is tested in Spain’s Catalonia region

Barely 13% of Spanish high school graduates can boast about knowing intermediate English, while 35% remain stuck at beginner’s level, meaning they are unable to hold a conversation in that language, according to Eurostat figures. In a bid to improve standards, the education department of the regional government of Catalonia has decided to set up a pilot project called Avanzamos (We advance) in 40 public high schools.

English language students in Spain.
English language students in Spain.Samuel Sánchez

For the last two years, language teachers (English, French, German, Latin, Spanish and Catalan) have been working together to avoid duplicating content and to help students better understand the cultural differences that lie behind languages.

“The traditional approach to teaching languages doesn’t work. We have to take a risk,” explains Montserrat Montagut, the head of foreign languages at the Catalan Education Department.

Motivation has to be based on understanding cultural differences, and that can only be done by getting teachers to work together

Olga Esteve, foreign language expert

“Languages cannot be taught in isolation and the least important things are grammatical structures. This is a new approach and that is why we need time to measure the impact on students,” says Olga Esteve, an expert in foreign language learning methods at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University.

“To acquire a second language, you use the knowledge you already have from your mother tongue. Motivation has to be based on understanding cultural differences, and that can only be done by getting teachers to work together,” says Esteve, explaining that the idea is to apply project-based learning to languages.

She offers an example: students studying conversational techniques need to understand the origin of expressions in different languages; which means thinking about similarities between languages. It is also important to grasp that verb tenses do not function the same way in all languages. “We shouldn’t teach verb conjugations by heart, but instead the culture of each country and why one tense is used and not another,” says Esteve.

This requires foreign language teachers to program their studies jointly, to decide who will explain what, and to try not to duplicate content. The teachers at the 40 schools in Catalonia taking part in the pilot project receive 50 hours of training during the first two years. “In elementary schools, teachers do coordinate their efforts, but this never happens at the secondary level, says Esteve.

Jordi Satorra is the principal at Institut Antoni de Marti i Franqués High School, one of the centers taking part in the pilot project. He explains that students of German study subordinate clauses during their third year of secondary school, when they are 14 or 15, whereas they do not do so in Spanish or Catalan until their fourth year.

“Teachers need to know these details about the academic program and agree to reserve one or more  sessions to explain new concepts first in the mother tongue,” he explains.

The traditional approach to teaching languages doesn’t work. We have to take a risk

Montserrat Montagut, Catalan education department

So far, tests on students show that their motivation levels have increased. “It’s easy to see why. Kids connect with languages and don’t study them like math tables: another example of the end of memorization,” says Esteve.

Kristina Cunningham, head of the European Commission’s multilingualism unit, says that Spain’s main problem when it comes to learning languages is “lack of proficiency” by the teachers.

“Any measure designed to improve the quality of teaching is welcome, but until Spanish language teachers spend time abroad, their ability to teach will be reduced.” One short-term solution could be to include teachers in the Erasmus+ program, which foresees teacher exchanges.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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