Language Learning Stigmas In GCSE Aged Pupils

If we told you that many language teachers in secondary school establishments are in short supply and seriously lack in resources, would it change the way you think about your language classes? Would it make you listen more carefully to the teacher’s explanations or try harder when asked to pronounce a word in front of the class? Sadly, we fear not.

There is a mindset when it comes to languages among young teens, that suggests that languages are difficult and pointless. Teachers and students need to overcome this preconception and become aware of the reality that languages are fun, highly useful and don’t necessarily have to be hard to learn.

The younger you are, the more susceptible to languages you'll be so now is one of the most effective times to grasp this additional language.

The truth is that numerous teenagers lack in confidence when it comes to speaking German at School, because there is little encouragement for them to succeed in this area, and few examples shown to them of how multilingualism can benefit them.

Being multilingual has many benefits.
Having one or more additional language can really benefit you in the future. Photo credit: quinn.anya via Visualhunt /

In fact, The Independent newspaper reported in 2012 that nine in ten GCSE-aged pupils in the UK struggled to perform basic tasks in foreign languages, like expressing their interests, and four fifths struggled to even get by in a restaurant scenario or when asking strangers for simple directions. Meanwhile, students from other European countries were way ahead in terms of language ability.

The same survey that The Independent reported on, conducted by the Commission, found that three quarters of Britons believed at that time that every country in the EU should be able to speak at least one language other than their mother tongue. This goes to show that the importance of foreign languages doesn’t go unrecognised by English communities, but does this realisation come too late?

In 2012, the government made it compulsory for primary school children, aged seven and above, to learn foreign languages.

One of the reasons for this was to introduce the idea to learn German at an earlier age, so that pupils have at least a basic understanding of one or two foreign languages before they reach secondary school.

This not only helps pupils to learn more, but it also makes their ability to engage with the linguistic properties of language much better (as mentioned, the younger you are, the easier it is to take in a second language).

So, Why Choose GCSE German?

Studying languages, particularly one as prominent as German, can offer you opportunities to study languages in your higher or further education, continue your studies abroad, compete in the global jobs market and even emigrate to the country with little or no upheaval.

Furthermore, while other subjects usually require you to apply to them to a professional field, the acquisition of a language (especially to the point of being fluent) can actually result in a ready-made career for you.

Companies are always in search of talented language individuals to provide written translations, spoken interpretations or even to write blogs in a target language.

Common GCSE Language Learning Issues

While you may feel that you are alone in your struggle to grasp German, with your peers seemingly working at a higher level than you, there are a number of common factors that affect students’ ability to retain a second language, particularly in a GCSE classroom setting.

Not Listening Carefully

Listening carefully is key to learning, so it is important not to muck around during lessons.

It is during your language classes that you will likely get the most exposure to your target language, therefore paying attention to your teacher’s pronunciation of words (which will usually be supported with facial expressions and hand gestures) will really help you to better understand what is being taught.

If interruptions or distractions occur because of other students not listening, try to distance yourself from them and remain focused on the task at hand. A language lesson is not something you can easily catch up on at home!

Experts say that an important phase in learning language, just like when you learn your first ever language as a child, is a silent period.

Watching TV and listening to the radio or podcasts in German can help you to process the language better.
Experts suggest a period of listening helps accelerate language learning. Photo credit: Serge Seva via Visual Hunt / CC BY

You have to listen and process information before you attempt to try it out yourself, so be sure to spend time watching TV programmes or films in German to improve your listening skills and don’t worry too much about mastering speaking until later.

If your teacher encourages you to start speaking in German, give it your best shot but don’t be too hard on yourself if you aren’t very good to begin with.

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Being Afraid To Look Stupid

One important thing to bear in mind is that you will not look silly for trying to speak another language, and any mistake you do make will only help you to get it right the next time.

If you try to answer a question thrown at you and are faced with your classmates giggling, try to remind yourself that they are probably intimidated by your confidence to stand up and give it a go.

If the shoe was on the other foot, they would probably be unable to to give a better answer as, in your set, you should all be working at a similar level.

A Lack Of Curiosity

Having no interest in speaking the language makes learning it quite a task. This takes us back to the idea of culture playing a huge part in the learning journey, and why teachers should be encouraged within the syllabus to put more emphasis on the positives of learning German; i.e. highlighting some of the interesting facts about Germany and its unique language.

Pupils need a stronger attitude towards language acquisition and it is teachers who need to change this approach. Thankfully, new language specifications are taking this on board and are beginning to introduce more and more details regarding the culture and the way of life in Germany.

GCSE German: Principal Exam Boards

German at GCSE Level is offered by AQA, WJEC, Eduqas and OCR, among others. The qualification is designed to help learners to develop language skills and provide activities that have real-life relevance.

The reformed GCSE German GCSE (which is now graded 9-1 as opposed to A*-E) is being taught from September 2017.

Below are three of the most popular exam boards for German GCSE.


AQA officials have worked alongside teachers to create a specification that will stimulate and motivate students. As such, they’ve introduced a range of topics, many familiar but others focusing more on the culture of Germany and German-speaking territories.

While the AQA syllabus offers an insight into culture, popular areas of interest and study and employment relating to German, the course is examined on the pupil’s speaking and writing abilities.


OCR offers a flexible course whereby tasks can be completed out of the classroom, which can help teachers to set assessments in more relevant settings to encourage a higher performance.

In a recent move towards offering even more flexibility to students too, OCR has introduced a short course whereby learners can either focus on just the speaking part or just the writing part of the course. This means that if you are better at one part, Speaking or Writing, you can opt to only be examined on these sections.


Edexcel, another one of the principal exam boards offering German lessons, has developed a syllabus that intends to motivate pupils by bringing language to life using cultural references and varying themes. The content covered is clear and manageable and has been trialled by teachers and students alike for suitability.

Learn more about learning German at A level as well.

Using Past Papers To Improve German Skills

As with most, if not all other subjects offered by mainstream exam boards, German students can find past papers for their course by visiting the relevant exam board. Most documents are available in .pdf format and therefore easily downloaded prior to being printed out and completed by hand (as you have to in an actual written exam).

When attempting a past paper, be sure to set yourself a time limit and to avoid being disturbed as you will want the experience to be as close to an exam setting as possible in order to gain the most from it.

Past papers should be completed in isolation or in complete silence like in an exam hall.
Try to mimic exam settings when completing past papers and don't let yourself get distracted. Photo credit: comedy_nose via Visual Hunt / CC BY

Past papers are a fantastic source of revision as they allow you to find out what kinds of questions you will be faced with when it comes to your exam, and let you practice exam techniques so that you are as prepared as can be by the time the assessment period arrives.

In addition to past papers, be sure to cast your eye over the mark schemes as well so that you can fully understand what the examiner will be expecting from you.

Note: While BBC Bitesize is a great source of German revision for GCSE students and provides mock exams to download and complete adapts to GCSE level, it is not an actual exam board and therefore the grades you achieve on their assessments may not reflect the grade you will get in your final GCSE exam.

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Laura is a Francophile with a passion for literature and linguistics. She also loves skiing, cooking and painting.