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Language Learning Around the World: Continental Europe

The attitude towards language learning in continental Europe is markedly different from that of the UK. While foreign languages became non-mandatory at GCSE in 2002, most European countries have been promoting multilingualism as an essential component of European education and identity since the mind-00s. In the context of Brexit, it is interesting (and for the majority of us at Struck Fluent who have benefitted hugely from EU citizenship, saddening) to consider the effect of this attitude on the British sense of identity and our understanding of and relationship with the Continent. Below, we discuss some of the key differences between UK and continental European approaches to the teaching and learning of foreign languages, and their effect on both British and European identity.

Early introduction

The EU stresses the importance of introducing children to a foreign language at an early age. This means that our continental neighbours are already being introduced to another language (usually English) in Kindergarten. In the UK, meanwhile, second-language education is a lottery. At Struck Fluent, we encounter forward-thinking nurseries and schools in the private sector who provide excellent foreign language exposure in the early years which morphs into more formal teaching as the children get older. We also love working with parents to deliver bespoke foreign language playgroups in their homes. However, we recognise that many people cannot afford such options and that as such their children often miss out on opportunities for language learning, especially as state schools are not required to deliver any foreign language education until Key Stage 2. The only stipulated goal for this is that it must adequately prepare children for secondary school language learning, which is open to very broad interpretation. There is also no requirement to space out the teaching throughout Juniors. In practice, this often means that children do not have any significant exposure to a foreign language until Year Six, learning from teachers who may not have a good grasp of the language themselves and are more focused on increased pressure to get their classes through the SATS. By this age, we often find that children have internalised the message that languages are hard and scary, and ‘everyone speaks English anyway.’ As ‘tweenagers’ they are also likely losing the unselfconsciousness of younger children and will be more scared of ‘getting it wrong’ than they would have been aged, say 5 or 6.

At secondary school, it has long been possible to give up a foreign language at the end of Year Nine. Throughout Europe meanwhile, it is mandatory to continue with at least one foreign language until the age of 18 and a second language is strongly encouraged. This divergence has put a whole generation of British children at a huge disadvantage to their European peers: as well as access to education and employment outside our small island, they lack the many holistic benefits of language learning that make for a more rounded individual perspective and ultimately a more tolerant society: a deeper understanding of other cultures, of ways of thinking and being, and a contingent sense of respect and unity between these cultures.

Access to education and employment

In the days before Brexit, as part of my degree I spent a year at University in France on the ERASMUS programme. As an EU citizen, this guaranteed me a grant of €300 per month to cover my living expenses (France had no tuition fees at that time). All my continental European friends were well aware of the ERASMUS programme and its benefits, whereas my British university peers had almost all never heard of it unless they read Modern Foreign Languages. My fellow ERASMUS students came from all over the EU and in addition to being French learners, they also spoke excellent English. Even those who proclaimed to have ‘only school English’ were far more proficient in my mother tongue than I had been in either French or German after completing A-Levels in each. This speaks to the seriousness with which competency in English is taken not only in Europe but worldwide. If you want to attend the world’s best universities (all in the US and UK) you need to pass a seriously befuddling English test whether your intended course of study is Sculpture, Computer Science or English Literature. Much academic literature is also now only available in English. Decent English is also expected of employees at any company doing business outside their home country as it has become the go-to lingua franca. However, over the last decade in particular, the EU has also been actively promoting the learning of other European languages in order to encourage the free movement of talented individuals between countries, universities and companies across the continent. Since my ERASMUS days, programmes have been established to encourage EU citizens into apprenticeships, traineeships and a wide variety of study placements across different countries. This reflects a cohesive European identity at odds with the UK’s increasingly isolationist position: having always been somewhat ambivalent re: the free movement principle, our country seems lately to have emerged as wholly against it. Is there a link between this isolationism and our devaluing of language learning? Below, we look more closely at the split between European and British identity and how it can be illustrated by our attitudes to the importance of multilingualism.

Multilingualism and identity

The English language has historically been a tool of oppression both within and without the UK, used to actively wipe out other languages and suppress cultural identities. As such, institutional disregard for the learning of other languages and the ‘everyone speaks English anyway’ attitude feels at best narrow-minded and at worst dangerous. Meanwhile, the EC’s 2008 document ‘Multiligualism: an asset for Europe and a shared commitment’ promotes the learning of two European languages with the specific intent of creating social cohesion, international and intercultural dialogue. Between 2010 and 2015 in particular, the EU has reported a huge increase in the learning of two European languages to a high standard across the continent. This reflects the idea that language learning is crucial to European identity, breaking down the narrow bonds of national identity in favour of a larger, continental sense of belonging. As discussed above, free movement across countries is encouraged for students and employees alike, and the majority of the current young generation enjoy the ability to share in their neighbours’ cultures and languages. For me, this is a stark illustration of how far Britain has drifted from the Continent and illustrates our reluctance to fully commit to European identity. It is a vicious circle: locked out of the languages and cultures of our closest neighbours and often unaware of the advantages – or even the existence – of programmes like ERASMUS, they become ever more ‘other’ and the prospect of language learning and intercultural exchange becomes ever more daunting and/or undesirable.

Have you benefitted from studying or working in Europe? Or maybe you feel you’ve missed out on learning a foreign language? Or maybe you disagree completely with our position! Let us know your thoughts in any case – we love a good debate!

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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Raising Bilinguals: Tips from the Coal Face


At Struck Fluent, many of our clients as well as tutors Alice and Lucy, are raising bilingual families. We’re often asked for our thoughts on how to ensure children grow up fluent in both their parents’ language (or languages!) so we asked Lucy to share her top tips and tricks for multi-lingual family life.

What is fluency anyway?

When you start breaking it down, fluency in a language is a pretty involved idea. Language teachers divide language into four skills which are categorised as ‘active’ (speaking and writing) and ‘passive’ (listening and reading). Even in our first languages, we’ll be better at some of these skills than others and depending on the kind of work we do and the lifestyles we lead, we’ll also need to use some more than others.

When you start out on your bilingual journey, it’s worth thinking about how important each of these skills are to you and your family, and how realistic a balance you can achieve whilst keeping your sanity. For example, my husband and I are bringing our son up bilingual in English and Korean. Most important to us is that he can communicate with his grandparents and extended family, so our focus is on speaking and listening. Options for formally learning to read and write Korean are limited where we live, so while we read to him in Korean and will teach him the Korean writing system when he’s old enough, we are more relaxed about these skills: we’d love him to have the option to live and work in Korea if he wants to, and feel that with a solid foundation in the spoken language he will be able to pick up writing skills later in life.

Motivation, motivation, motivation

Given the above, it’s rare that bilingual children will be equally able in both languages. They will almost always have stronger and weaker skills in both a primary and a secondary language, with the language of the country they live in being the primary one. This is normal, and in their younger years children will generally be happy to natter away in both regardless.  It is worth considering though, that as they grow up children will spend increasing amounts of time outside the home interacting in and – this is the crucial bit – building relationships in their primary language. Relationships are the lifeblood of language: linguists highlight every generation of teens inventing their own language to mark themselves out as separate from adults, or twins inventing whole languages of their own. Especially by the time they hit their teens, peer relationships become children’s focus, and unless they have a clear set of motivations to use their secondary language, the appeal begins to fade. Add in some standard teenage rebellion and fear of Being Different and it’s easy to see how the secondary language becomes a chore; an imposition; something they only use to speak to their dad anyway so what’s the point (door slam, eyeroll, sigh).

One way to combat this is to provide contexts outside the home in which the secondary language is spoken, thus helping children (and you!) to build a network of other secondary language speakers. If you’re in a big city this can be pretty simple – just rock on down to your local foreign-language playgroup (check ours out here) or hit up Meetup for some relaxed socialising. Chinese speakers in particular can be pretty sure of a Saturday school nearby for more formal learning and friend-making. If you live further afield, this is tricksier and you may have to travel further or set up your own groups.

Finances allowing, the more regular you can make trips to the country where your language is spoken, the better – many families dedicate summer holidays to such trips, or head over for the main festivals – this is a great option as it helps children participate in and understand their second culture as well as their second language.

If all of the above are impossible, don’t despair – there are a number of approaches to using the language in the home that work well too, and we look at these below.

Which language when?

Bilingual families usually lean towards the One Parent One Language method (OPOL for short). This is pretty much what it says on the tin: children communicate with one parent in the primary language and the other in the secondary language. Sounds great, right? And in many ways it is – in fact it’s widely regarded as the most successful method out there. But. As discussed above, if it’s all you do, after a while children cotton on that the only time they’re using the secondary language is with that one parent. Also, how do you have a three-way conversation between parents and children using this method? Especially if you don’t speak your partner’s language yourself? As children get older and have a decent foundation in their secondary language, it can make sense not to stick too rigidly to OPOL. There are a few things you can do to mix it up a bit and keep that motivation flowing:

  • If you don’t speak your partner’s language, get in touch and let us help you learn it! Aim at least to muddle through everyday family conversation: this has the dual effect of setting a good example and allowing your children the opportunity to teach you – this reversal of the typical power dynamic is often really good for keeping kids and teens engaged.


  • Mix up how and when you use the secondary language. For some families, this means dividing the week into – for example – ‘German days’ and ‘English days’. For us, what’s really worked is concentrating on space rather than time and dividing our flat into ‘Korean rooms’ and ‘English rooms’. This adds an element of humour and playfulness – kids can enforce this rule on parents (reversal of power dynamic again) and can literally step out if they need to switch into the other language, before plunging back in again. For us, it makes things a bit silly and – for me as an adult language learner too – a bit less burdensome.


  • Bring the second culture into the home as much as the language. Media is your friend here: family film nights and series binges, second-language music and second-culture festival celebrations all make great opportunities to dive into the secondary language.

We hope this has been helpful – giving your kids a second language is an awesome thing and opens so many doors for them. It’s also super tough so bilingual-family readers: we salute you! Let us know what you think of our ideas – we always love to hear from you.

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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Top Three Language Learning Apps

At Struck Fluent, we’re avid students as well as teachers of languages. In addition to keeping up the languages we teach, we are currently enjoying expanding our horizons into a range of languages from Serbian to Classical Tibetan.

As such, we’re constantly seeking new and innovative ways to help us along the road to fluency. The tech age has been revolutionary in this respect: an explosive range of language-learning apps has meant that the days of mind-numbing hours spent rote-learning vocab are long gone (Hallelujah!), and finding native speakers to practice with is easier than ever before. Below we introduce our top three apps – hope you find them as useful as we have!

  1. Duolinguo

Top of the download list, Duolinguo users rave about its masterful gamification of the language learning process. It’s a simple yet addictive app that aims to help you use language skillfully rather than just learning reams of vocab: two of our favourite features are the ‘Stories’ section, where you read and answer questions on a story to boost your comprehension skills, and the speaking/listening practice using your phone’s microphone to listen and check pronunciation.

We also really like that Duolinguo’s courses are created by native speakers and not aimed exclusively at first-language English speakers. Gives us a warm, fuzzy, anti-colonial kinda feeling.

2. Memrise

Memrise uses similar tactics to Duolinguo in that it’s gamified to the max: you score points at each stage of the course which position you on a global leaderboard. However, it’s very much a vocab app: the courses are created by the user community who also generate and share memes that have helped them remember individual words. Some of these are absolutely genius: the Chinese character for ‘capital’ (the ‘jing’ in ‘Beijing’) looks like this:  京. It is is made up of three parts stacked on top of each other:

–  亠 is a radical (it has no meaning on its own but is a part of quite a few characters – kind of vaguely like silent letters in English). It gets called a ‘lid’.

– 口 means ‘mouth’

 – 小 means ‘small’

So the way to remember it is that the Chinese capital keeps a lid on the mouths of the small people. Make of that what you will!

3. HelloTalk

Essentially pen-pals for the digital age, HelloTalk links you up with speakers of the language(s) you want to learn and lets you chat WhatsApp-style through texts and voice messages. The basic version is free and allows you to list one language that you speak and one you wish to learn, but if you upgrade to the paid version you can list more. It has a built-in dictionary feature which is great for quickly checking and using words in context – proven to help you internalise vocab more quickly!

What do you think of our top three? Are there any you think should be here? Let us know! We love hearing from you lovely lot.

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.



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Teaching Materials Series: Videos

People get tetchy at the mention of using videos in the classroom – and sure, there’s little educational value in learners zoning out in front of a cartoon with no context! But done right, video is a great way to engage learners, enlarge their horizons and – our crucial aim here at Struck Fluent – encourage them to produce language.

Here are a few of our fave video resources and how we use them:

TED talks

A language teacher’s manna from heaven, TED offer engaging material on a host of topics from social issues to environmental concerns; from philosophy to the latest scientific research. In other words, material to suit the needs and interests of every learner – this is great news for us as we’re all about tailoring our sessions to learners’ individual needs! TED talks are mainly in English which make them a go-to ESL resource but there are a few foreign-language talks too. The one above is a firm fave of mine addressing the status of English as a global language and the harm it may be doing – guaranteed to get even the most reticent second-language speakers talking!

Once I’ve selected a talk, I’ll use a range of techniques to approach the video. I might begin by discussing issues around the selected theme, then watch the video once in order to establish its gist. I’ll then do a second watch with some more detailed questions to answer, and end with sharing views on the speaker’s position or (if it’s a larger class) a debate. TED also include transcripts of all their talks, which are useful for detailed listening practice and language study. As an added bonus, you’ll find all kinds of accents and dialects in the talks, which is great for reinforcing the concept of World English and introducing learners to new sounds and expressions.

The News

We tend to use a mix of target-language clips like this one (ie those for and by speakers of the foreign language) and those specially created for language learners, like A la Une, above. Resources like these are great for leading engaging sessions around current affairs and present the opportunity to learn and practice grammar and vocabulary in a meaningful context. Research shows that this makes it much easier to remember, which is great news for our learners!


Similarly to picture books, these are a great way to build confidence for lower-level learners as they tend to use minimal words and focus on visual images. For this reason, we often like to play the infographic with the sound off to begin with, allowing learners to glean and discuss the overall meaning of the clip, before adding the sound and moving onto a more detailed discussion of the information.

To state the obvious, infographics are particularly useful to quickly show learners concepts or processes that might be boring or time-heavy to explain in words, and will definitely not appeal to visual learners. To this end, I’ve used infographics to introduce learners to the difference between England, Britain and the UK (tricksy distinctions for non-Europeans in particular – my Korean students were surprised to learn they were not one and the same!) or to processes like the water cycle in the clip above.

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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Teaching Materials Series: Songs

For Young Learners, it’s not a lesson if we haven’t raised the roof with at least one ridiculously catchy tune (accompanying actions obligatory). Songs are fantastic for raising kids’ energy, learning grammar passively, and getting in some Total Physical Response (co-ordination of language and movement to help cement words and meaning).

You can use foreign-language versions of English classics, such as this French version of ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It’, which has the added bonus of covering other emotions too:

…a French classic like this one (great for parts of the body and future tense):

…or alternatively something utterly bonkers such as this (seriously, the bonkers-ness makes the vocab more memorable):

Songs are also a great tool for older children and adult learners. They can be used to teach grammar points in context, for example this beauty for the difference between the perfect and imperfect in French:

Or this, for ESL learners battling with the second conditional:

They’re also great for straight-up listening practice. I’ve used this fun rap with adult beginners as much as Young Learners, usually getting them to fill in the blanks in a copy of the lyrics to consolidate the sound of the word with its written form:

Hope you enjoy this selection of our musical faves – let us know what you think!

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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