Chartered Institute
of Linguists

Ahead of the competition


Eleven-year-old pupil Amber Turner used to feel she “couldn’t achieve many things”, but taking part in the uTalk Junior Language Challenge (JLC) changed all that, says her dad Alan. “Making it to the final twice now has proven to her that she can achieve anything she puts her mind to.” Amber’s quiet achievement is one of the many heart-warming stories that have made our annual language-learning contest for primary school students such a joy to run.

Since it began in 2004, more than 27,000 children in 500 schools across the UK have taken part in the competition. Many of them tell us that entering the JLC has made them realise for the first time how easy and fun learning languages can be. Others tell us that entering the competition has inspired them to go on to study languages at a higher level.

For the team at uTalk, a language-learning company based in London, the JLC is a reminder of the power of languages to change lives. But the idea came about by chance. In 2003, a secondary school in Hayle, Cornwall asked if we could add Cornish to our range of products, which were mainly CD-Roms at the time. Hayle Academy had a policy of introducing students to a range of languages in their first year and they wanted to include Cornish. We were only too happy to help and produced a ‘Learn Cornish’ CD-Rom with local Cornish translators and speakers.

We launched it at Hayle Academy, along with a live Cornish language competition for pupils, and it was a huge success. Although girls tend to do better at languages than boys at this age, boys were well represented among the top scorers. Games-based learning, it seemed, was a winning strategy.

“Cornish was the lure and your CD-Rom the hook! The children at Hayle School are still avidly competing against each other for points each week,” teacher Deborah Grigg told me. She found it particularly useful that teachers did not necessarily have to be experts in the language being taught. In fact, she said, having teachers learn alongside the children was incredibly motivating for the whole class.

We realised we were onto something special. We had a choice of 100+ languages and a way to get children hooked on learning independently, either at home or at school. The competition was born and, following Hayle Academy’s example, we were keen to challenge children to learn more than one language in order to develop the ability to ‘learn how to learn languages’.

We decided to focus on primary-age children, where the need and opportunities seemed greatest, devising a competition of three rounds with a different language in each round. To give pupils the fun of face-to-face competition, we held regional and national finals, with their rapidly changing scores displayed on a giant leaderboard. The atmosphere was electric!

As technology has improved, so has the competition. We moved from CD-Roms to online learning, first on computers and later on tablets. This year things have moved up a gear again and entrants are now able to learn using the uTalk app, which works on all mainstream smartphones, tablets and computers. The app has been a huge improvement because it syncs children’s scores between devices and allows them to learn offline if they download the content first. It also means we can give the children more words and phrases to learn. There is now an online leaderboard, so they can see their ranking whenever they log in.

We are always listening to advice on how to improve the format and one key change has been to the range of languages. In round one, schools now choose which of uTalk’s 140 languages their pupils learn; in round two, everyone will learn French in 2020, and we have lowered the entry bar so more children can benefit.

For primary and beyond

It is widely believed that the younger the child, the more receptive they are to learning a new language. But with 22,000 primary schools in the UK and limited budgets, recruiting enough modern foreign language (MFL) teachers is hugely challenging. The JLC supports schools by helping pupils learn independently or as a class, with the app projected on a whiteboard. It works for English and non-English speakers alike because it automatically defaults to whatever language is set on a user’s device.

It is not about fluency; it’s about giving children the self-belief that they can learn how to speak and understand any language. After just one term they should have gained a working vocabulary of around 400 words and phrases. One of the early finalists, Aurelia Hibbert, is testament to the long-term benefits of the contest, having passed her language GCSE with an A*. “Your JLC was the reason I realised that I could do well in languages and your discs really showed how easy it could be,” she explained. “I was very sad when I could no longer do JLC.” Michelle Holmes, mother to competition entrant Charlotte, agrees that the impact reaches beyond the primary experience, and “has really helped Charlotte with languages in general, not just the ones she has learnt via JLC!”

Because the app can be used at home, it also inspires the children’s families to learn, as prizewinner Riya Sangampalayam’s father explained: “Our whole family has embraced the learning challenge, so much so that at some points in the journey, Riya’s mother was ahead of Riya at understanding and remembering the language.” In Milton Keynes, finalist Eddie Hughes had a similar experience, with his older brother getting involved, disappointed that there wasn’t a competition for 14-year-olds.

Insights from the classroom

Pupils from The Glasgow Academy are learning Zulu this year, while children in Notting Hill, London are learning Māori. Many have chosen Spanish, German or Portuguese, and a few have opted for Hindi, Japanese or Latin. According to Sue Todd, MFL Coordinator at Holy Trinity Rosehill Primary School in Stockton-on-Tees, the contest has had an incredible impact. “The children lower down the school talk about it and say things like they cannot wait to get into Year 5 so they can have a go at the competition. It certainly has had a profound impact on language learning. It has helped us promote the learning of new languages throughout KS1 and 2 [ages 4-11].”

Teresa Stark, a teacher at St Helen’s College in Uxbridge, agrees. “Each year when the initial language is announced a buzz of excitement goes around the school,” she said. “There is no doubt it is a great motivator and has really brought languages to life.”

Plans for the future

The format has proved so successful that we are running a sister Junior Language Challenge in schools in India. There has been interest from countries including Australia, Korea, Greece, Nigeria and Germany, and we are also looking to roll the learning model out to secondary schools.  

The uTalk JLC has the potential to help lots of children discover their talent for languages. This is a skill that is sorely needed if we want the world to be a friendlier place. As a step in this direction, I hope uTalk will be used to help children in multicultural schools to learn each other’s languages. A teacher in East London once told me that he had 22 children in his class and only two of them spoke the same language – and it wasn’t English. How great would it be if our children could practise speaking a new language with a classmate who was already fluent in it?

The uTalk Junior Language Challenge won the CIOL Threlford Memorial Cup 2019. Email to find out more.

Let the games begin

When Susannah Stockton, uTalk’s Junior Language Competition (JLC) coordinator, worked as a modern languages teacher she entered her pupils in the contest for 13 years. She offers her tips for teachers new to the JLC.

“I used to start by putting the learning content on an interactive whiteboard and discussing the different words and topics with the children: Which words looked familiar to them? What did they think their best learning strategies would be? I would then divide the class into two teams so they could compete against each other. Every child answered one question for their team and I kept score.

I loved doing co-curricular work around each language the children were learning. With French, for instance, I could interest pupils in the country’s geography, speciality food, artists and songs. We all loved a sing-a-long!”

Richard Howeson founded uTalk in 1991 to help people learn speaking and listening skills in another language. The company, which always uses native speakers, pioneered interactive technology and gamification to help people to learn.



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