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On A-Levels result day, we wonder: Are exams the right approach to language learning?

It’s A-level results day – YIKES!

Thousands of students are getting their A-level results today – a round of applause from the whole Memrise team for making it!

However, only a small part of A-level results will be made up of modern foreign language exam results. 

Numbers are going down

According to the Language Trends Survey (2016/17)  by the British Council, the number of students choosing a modern foreign language A-level exam has gone down by 32 per cent since 1996. Students seem to be choosing science and economics rather than languages. 

Memrise’s COO Ben Whately has a theory about why the numbers are going down:

“Students aren’t taking exams because exams promote the wrong approach to language learning. We’re seeing a massive growth in people learning languages for fun – people who are into anime are learning Japanese, people who are into Korean soap operas are learning Korean, etc. Exams are suffering because they are irrelevant to the excitement of exploring the world, which is what young people want to do. But that doesn’t mean that young people aren’t learning languages – they’re doing that more than ever.”

Students take their exams for their own personal growth.

Recently, Memrise carried out a poll to gain insights into the declining number of students that are sitting modern foreign language A-level exam.

According to the poll results, knowledge of another language is still seen as important; 87% of the participants said that knowing another language in life is very important, and the remaining 13% said that it is quite important.

The poll results also show that, although one of the reasons students take modern foreign language exams is so to increase job prospects in a globalised world, the most common reasons for taking the exams are to do with their own personal, cultural growth.

The most popular reason (33%) why students think it’s important to know a language is the ability to communicate with people from different cultures. Students also think that knowing a language gives you the ability to better understand other peoples and cultures more in depth (27%). 

“The main reasons for taking the exams are to do with their own personal cultural growth.”

Furthermore, the survey shows that 22% of students think that knowing a language gives someone a new perspective on life, and encourages them to be more open-minded. On top of that, 10% say it’s a lot easier to come across new opportunities, including new job opportunities (8%).

Other poll entries include aspects such as meeting new people, respect towards others, personal development, fun, and developing the power of empathy.

“Knowing another language expands the depth and breadth of your understanding of humankind and all its extraordinary complexity”, one participant said.

Exams – what do they actually teach us?

Classroom

Matt Watson, a French and Spanish teacher from England, explains that studying for A-level exams is extremely complex; apart from having to learn the vocabulary, students also need to develop higher thinking skills for essays, learn how to debate, translate accurately, develop their cultural appreciation and become excellent communicators.

“Achieving an A or A* is very difficult”, he adds.

Ben Whately explains that, if students were tested on whether they could make themselves understood, make friends in the country, tell jokes, entertain people, have discussions and arguments, persuade people, or in general be a functioning social human in a different language, students might be a lot more interested in taking the exams.

“Now that is a difficult exam to set, which is probably why we have fallen back on such lazy and ineffective exams. But if we want people to take exams, then we need to make the exams fit for purpose”, he adds.

Only 37% of the survey participants found that their language exam was easier than the other exams they took, which leaves 63% that said that the exam was the same or more difficult than other exams

“Now that is a difficult exam to set, which is probably why we have fallen back on such lazy and ineffective exams. But if we want people to take exams, then we need to make the exams fit for purpose”

Have students had enough of studying for difficult exams, writing endless dry essays and learning useless vocabulary for a test just to forget them all seconds later?

Luckily, bringing fun into language learning is something that Memrise is all about, whilst also focusing on the relevant, up-to-date content that we bring to people.

“Memrise brings the spirit of adventure into learning a language. You are discovering a new world. Memrise is the travel companion that helps make sense of that new world and brings it to life”, says Whately.

“We are creating software that will reduce the time it takes to develop the confidence to speak in a new language from 400 hours of study with offline lessons to around 50 hours.”

Memrise hopes to give everyone the opportunity to discover a new language and culture and have fun at the same time.

Feeling inspired to learn a new language?

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Discussion

One response to “On A-Levels result day, we wonder: Are exams the right approach to language learning?

  1. I completely agree that the exam system is not focused in a way to encourage fun and engagement. I studied German and French at school for 4 years and left with little to no practical knowledge of the language. Since leaving school I have started learning languages again, originally for travel and now for a hobby, I have found it really enjoyable and a great way of connecting with more people. I believe that more focus should be placed on having practical social interactions that someone could use outside of the classroom so the students can see why they are learning the information.

    Really enjoyed this post 🙂

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