Mr Robin Wallis studied Modern Languages at Downing College, Cambridge. He went on to do an MA in International Relations at the London School of Economics, launching a career as a diplomat throughout Latin America. A keen advocate of Pre-U, he led Canford School and Downe House School to offer this qualification and, since 2010, has worked as a senior examiner for Cambridge Assessment International Education. With half his life spent between Latin America and Europe, he joins us now to share his anecdotes, recommendations and opinions on the current state of modern languages in the British educational curriculum.
Why did you decide to go into teaching?
My first job at 18 was as a 'student teacher' in a public school. I had spent my life up to that point in the classroom, and I felt at home in that environment. I then joined the diplomatic service, but with the pleasant knowledge that I could become a teacher if I ever wanted an escape route. And so it was: I decided to change careers just when the demand for Spanish teachers exceeded the supply. I missed the Hispanic world - its language, its people, its literature... I loved returning to that world and reconnecting with my enthusiasm. It was a plus to discover that the students were open to appreciating them as well.
What are the similarities and differences between diplomacy and teaching?
In both you have to have an affinity with other cultures, and you have to be able to express yourself accurately both orally and in the written word. In both careers, I began by focusing on the issues that interested me, but eventually, I found myself managing the administration of a large organisation. My vice was that I had no patience with bureaucracy and so I eventually decided that I had made the best of a bad business and went in search of new horizons.
After many trips around the Hispanic world, have you discovered any dialect or accent that you particularly like?
I love the porteño accent because of its outrageous borrowings from Italian, and because I associate it with good old times in the city of Buenos Aires. The rioplatense is a very unique and vibrant subculture, and the dialect is part of it.
In your experience as a Pre-U examiner, what strengths do you think this qualification had over others such as A Levels and IB?
Pre-U took as its starting point the idea that studying a language meant learning to insert oneself into the countries where it is spoken. My aim was for my students not only to master Spanish, but also, when visiting a Spanish-speaking country, to be able to present themselves as people who were informed about the social, historical, cultural etc. factors that had shaped that country and culture. Moreover, we followed the news about Juan Carlos I, Chávez, Castro, Almodóvar, Nadal, Maradona, etc, as if it were a soap opera in which we looked forward to finding out what was going to happen in the lives of these increasingly familiar characters. Not only did that excite the students, but it also brought good exam results, helping with oral presentations and other exams. It was in stark contrast to the then A level, which forced students to talk about a kind of 'Social Science Lite', i.e. to give uninformed opinions on general topics that had nothing to do with the Hispanic world: youth problems, traffic, tattoos, etc - very uninspiring topics for linguists, or so it seemed. Instead, Cambridge encouraged us to incorporate new topics into the cultural studies syllabus: writers, filmmakers, singer-songwriters and many others, while A level offered the same authors that the teachers had studied as teenagers during Franco's dictatorship. I'm not aware of the new A level / IB programmes, but this year, as I bump into the teachers who are already teaching the last year of Pre-U, I can see in their melancholy countenance that they feel bad about not being able to offer that rich cultural recipe to the coming generations.
What kind of exercise or practice do you think is best to prepare students for their oral tests?
At least once a week watch the RTVE news in class, with the teacher, and evaluate together the cultural/political and linguistic content. Learn for a weekly test the vocabulary that arises from watching the news/reading newspaper articles, with a focus on multi-use vocabulary, which students will encounter in a variety of contexts. And, obviously, if the exam rewards certain linguistic elements, e.g. the subjunctive, you need to practise how to use it without making that use seem artificial.
The numbers of students taking a modern language or two have been falling for several years, how can this trend be reversed?
In the case of Spanish this trend is less noticeable, but it is true that modern language teaching is being buffeted by the winds of Brexit (introversion), the pandemic (lack of school trips) and the advance of technology (more intelligible translation). The Bulletin of Advanced Spanish, in conjunction with UCL, did an investigation of that phenomenon in 2021/22 and published a recommendation that it be included in the A-level programme for the options of studying Business and Economics, Science and Technology and Film-making, as additional options alongside the more traditional Literature and Film-making. Unfortunately, the ostriches who programme A levels don't seem to realise the urgency of remedying the trend you mention. But take heart: when I was learning Spanish at school, it was an almost abandoned subject (being a country under an archaic dictatorship when the UK was joining the then version of the EU). Twenty years later everyone was looking for Spanish teachers, which had become a very fashionable language. The cycle of life keeps on turning, but that doesn't mean there's any room for complacency!