Through language teaching assistants, students gain access to foreign languages by getting to know a person from the country in which the foreign language is spoken. This is the first time that a scientific study has looked at how students would evaluate the lessons spent with a language teaching assistant, especially regarding the benefits. The two authors present their work in connection with the goal of the “Lehrplan 21” (language-teaching curriculum in German-speaking Switzerland) and Passepartout (programme on French and English language teaching) to promote authentic learning and functional multilingualism. A total of 258 students of English, French or Spanish as a foreign language aged between 13 and 20 took the time to answer an extensive quantitative questionnaire.
The objectives of language assistants at Swiss host schools are largely aligned with those of the Lehrplan 21 and Passepartout programmes. The deployment of language assistants from other countries – all of whom are native speakers – facilitates access to the learner’s world, increases their motivation to learn and promotes intercultural learning. The reality is complex, however. For example, intercultural learning is challenging and contingent on many factors, and the demands placed on language assistants, teachers and students are high. What’s more, many learners are already highly motivated. How can this motivation be further increased? Based on teachers’ accounts, students spend up to one hour a week with a language teaching assistant. Nevertheless, a positive picture emerged on the whole. The vast majority (88%) of respondents would recommend the language assistantship programme to others. The lessons with language assistants, which are mostly conducted orally, help build confidence in speaking, for example, and students appreciate the laid-back atmosphere.
In addition to the quantitative survey, Urben and Helmle also conducted qualitative interviews with teachers who have years of experience with language assistants. The teachers’ perspective confirms the benefits to students: “Most of the time, students really enjoy going to these lessons”. And this is even the case when the teachers themselves are not very happy with the teaching assistants, which does happen, albeit rarely. The most important thing is that lessons are not boring. “Students always think it’s cool”.
The question of whether language teaching assistants mainly help the stronger or weaker students progress is disputed. Sometimes these lessons can simply help students feel more confident speaking. In any case, it is not uncommon for teachers to observe a student making a giant leap forward thanks to these classes.
Language assistants are also an asset for teachers themselves. They can consult the native speakers for correct information when they are unsure of something. Teachers also appreciate the different perspective, which is extremely rewarding, and the social aspect of doing leisure activities together, for example.
The master’s thesis also highlights some important points that should be borne in mind to ensure the full potential of native speakers is utilised. For example, preparation and review of the topic of intercultural learning and increased use of teaching material from the country of origin. The study fills important gaps in knowledge on Movetia’s language assistantship programme, complementing the survey of head of departments, which was conducted in 2015 by the predecessor organisation ch Foundation, and the annual surveys of language assistants. The qualitative interviews conducted for the master’s thesis provide a range of information, including details about the various tasks of mentors and head of departments: selection, planning, arrival and teaching. There is also a clear commitment to continuing to rely on this model as having a language teaching assistant reflects positively on schools, and is something they can advertise to the outside world and be proud of.
The authors compiled a great deal of data and also obtained information from project managers at Movetia. However, the second question that the thesis sought to address, namely why there are so few language assistants at lower secondary level, could not clearly be answered. Urben and Helmle are personally committed to helping ensure that younger students at lower secondary level will continue to be able to watch and discuss British series with an English-speaking language assistant or go to market to buy the ingredients to make a ratatouille with a French-speaking assistant.
The study reveals some ambiguous assumptions about the potential benefits. While the teachers surveyed believe that the foreign language skills of pupils at lower secondary level are insufficient to take advantage of a language teaching assistant, other results suggest that precisely such playful learning could go down well with younger students.
The study authors believe it would be interesting to determine whether and to what extent the perception of working with language assistants varies depending on level. There are plenty of figures available. Discussions are under way at Movetia regarding expansion of the programme.
Movetia’s statistics clearly show that schools that employ a language teaching assistant usually do so again. The number of assistants has reached a record of 68 this year. And more and more vocational schools are relying on this model. In addition, in the 2018/19 academic year, five Swiss abroad – a new target group – are working at Swiss host schools.