There are lots of ways that teachers and parents can utilise social media for language learning – so why don’t they?

There’s no denying that enthusiasm for learning foreign languages amongst our schoolchildren is at an all time low. But if things are going to change, teachers and parents need to get smarter.

In 2005, education correspondent for the Guardian, Polly Curtis, described how more children were learning a language to GCSE level than they were 10 years previously. Pupils were even beginning to explore other modern languages too, such as Arabic and Mandarin. Just two years later, this number was down, with fewer than half of all English school pupils taking a modern European language at GCSE level. This time, pupils were not only avoiding traditional modern languages such as French and German, but avoiding modern languages altogether. The finger of blame was pointed at the incumbent Labour government, who in 2004, made modern languages optional at GCSE level.

Skip to 2012, and the House of Lords is being forced to call for languages to be made compulsory in schools again, as senior figures warn that Britain risks being cut off from the rest of the world. Making modern languages a central feature of the new English Baccalaureate – an award for pupils securing a C grade or better in English, maths, history or geography, the sciences and a language – will help dramatically, but what else can teachers and parents do to inspire children and make them want to learn languages again?

The internet has the answer, but not on Google. Way back in 2000, Ros Taylor wrote for the Guardian about the web’s potential for language learning. At the time, internet users represented less than 6% of the world’s population, and Taylor’s article pioneered the use of online resources as a viable alternative to textbooks for GCSE students. As the internet became more popular, websites became a pivotal resource for school pupils. But whilst the internet has since surpassed Taylor’s expectations and embraced full-scale language courses, there is one area of the internet that remains untouched by language learners and teachers alike – social media.

Search for terms such as “language learning” or “learn French” on any of the major social networks – Facebook, Twitter and Google+ included – and you will find an abundance of individuals and businesses dedicated to talking about language learning, but not language learning itself. Lots of links to sign up forms for courses and articles (like this one) about the decline of language learning in schools, but no one dedicated to immersing students in a secure, interactive language learning environment. YouTube has become the favoured resource for teachers looking to contextualise, but kids don’t find their context on the TV anymore.

Children take to social media in nearly every aspect of their life. They catch up with friends there, play games there, even watch TV, shop and find jobs there. But they don’t learn there, and it’s partly because teachers and parents either don’t appreciate it or don’t understand it. The problem doesn’t belong to social media however, it belongs to us. On a daily basis, we are confronted with stories of privacy complaints, data theft and hacking , making social media seem distinctly anti-social. Yet if social media was inherently threatening, people would stay away – instead, the number of registered users on Facebook and Twitter is growing exponentially year on year. Even MySpace is making a comeback.

Schools like to think of themselves as modern, innovative and forward-thinking institutions, and the majority of them are. If you enter a classroom today, you are confronted with computers, PowerPoint, electronic whiteboards and iPads. But by refusing to engage with our children in the digital playground that is social media, we will never truly understand their needs and never fully realise its potential as a language learning tool.

5 ways you can start to engage with your pupils on social media:

1. Create a Facebook page that your class can ‘like’. Start posting updates to your timeline, but not in English. Ask your pupils to translate the text using Facebook’s in-line Bing translation tool and ask them to gage its accuracy.

2. Create a Twitter account. Start tweeting in a foreign language, bear in mind you have a 140 character limit, and see if your pupils can strike up a conversation with you. Impose a non-English only reply and retweet rule.

3. Create a YouTube account. Ask each of your pupils to record a video blog, or ‘vlog’, of their hobbies, thoughts or opinions on topical news stories, but speaking only in a foreign language. Those who want to have their video uploaded should send it to you first.

4. Create a Pinterest account. Take some pictures of prompt cards, post-it notes or even objects with their description in another language and ‘pin’ them on your boards. You could even look for photos of the country, or infographics about languages in general, to help your pupils understand more about why they should learn it.

5. Create a blog or Tumblr. Dedicate it entirely to publishing content in the language you teach. Show your pupils why you love the language and inspire them to do the same. Ask them to write something, however small, and post it for the whole world to admire.

You can enrol in ‘Digital communications for schools’, a half-day seminar that offers a holistic introduction to essential communication and social media skills as part of your continuing professional development. Guardian Teacher Network members receive a 20% discount on the standard delegate rate. If you are not already a member, click here to sign up – it’s quick, simple and absolutely free of charge.