British School Al Khubairat (BSAK)

British School Al Khubairat (BSAK) is one of a number of schools in the Gulf region using Vocab Express, having first signed up in 2014. In 2015 the school, became a Vocab Express ambassador school in the region, led by Head of MFL Charlie Davies. This involves spreading the word about Vocab Express to colleagues in schools throughout the region and sharing how they have incorporated the application into their MFL teaching.

The school competed in the Global Challenge 2015, finishing in a very respectable 8th place in the Challenge Cup Medio and in 4th place for French. The standout performer among the BSAK students was then Year 8 Christian, whose score for the week of 555,555 put him in the top 20 students globally. Christian described seeing the “lucky” points tally approaching as he entered the final day and feeling as though it would be a good place to stop!

Vocab Express founder Justin Sycamore travelled to the school late last year to chat to Charlie and students about the school’s performance in the Global Challenge, as well as the difference Vocab Express has made in their MFL department.

[Update: BSAK repeated their fantastic Global Challenge performance in 2016, finishing in third place in the French Genius Cup. Christian, now in Year 9, again led the way with an improved score of 62,445.]

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Global Challenge 2016

With more than 200 schools enrolled and over 30,000 students registering points, the Vocab Express Global Challenge 2016 was one of our biggest championships to date. As always we were blown away by the response from teachers and students alike, reflected in the incredible scores detailed below. This year we had a number of schools posting updates throughout the week on Twitter using the #vechamps hashtag, adding to the excitement of the competition.

In the overall Genius Cup, based on the combined scores of each school’s 25 highest-scoring students. Burntwood School came out on top with a hugely impressive 682,510. Close behind them were Northolt High School, last year’s champions, and Heath Mount School – both with scores of more than 500,000. The Genius Cup was created to enable schools of all sizes to compete fairly, and this year’s top 10 contained schools from all three tiers.

There were some phenomenal individual efforts from students, with 7 earning Grandmaster status by scoring more than 100,000 points. Our overall winner was Preethhi of Bunrtwood School, who finished the week just shy of the 200,000 mark, with one of the highest scores we have ever seen. Completing the Top 3 were Alexander of Haybridge High School and Adam of Fortismere, with fewer than 1000 points separating them! Alexander, the overall runner up, summarised the week as follows:

“It was both difficult and painful, but next year I’m taking first!”

The Dixie Grammar School were runaway victors in the Challenge Cup Piccolo, for schools with up to 150 registered students. Richard Thirlwell, head of MFL at the winning school, was delighted with his students’ efforts:

“It is great to see their competitive side come out in the languages we teach, but also the fun they have indulging in languages they have some earlier experience of or which are entirely new to them. We are proud of them all and the great team spirit they showed.”

Their score of 556,450 was on a par with much bigger schools – a fantastic achievement. Behind them in second and third place respectively were Lyndhurst House School and Copenhagen International School, one of a number of international schools taking part this year. Stephen Bristow, Head of French at the Danish school, reported a “fun at frantic” week:

“The element of competition – against themselves, the others in their class, and other schools really had them fired up and eager to keep going. The only negative thing about the Global Challenge was the number of times I had to keep checking the scoreboards to see how my students were doing – it became very addictive!”

The Challenge Cup Medio, for schools with between 150 and 500 registered students, there was a two-way fight for the top spot throughout the week. Cambridge International School built up a commanding lead over the first few days but came under sustained pressure from Heath Mount School towards the end. CIS eventually held out for the victory with an enormous points total of 834,670, with Heath Mount not far behind. It was a fantastic week for Heath Mount, who were runaway victors in both the Genius Cup and Challenge Cup Medio for French. Louise Henderson-Lea, Head of MFL at the school, described to us how they approach the Global Challenge:

“Our school ICT room becomes a hub of frenzied vocabulary-learning where the nature of the live scoreboard encourages even the most reluctant learners to participate. There is a determined buzz around the school – the pupils think they are ‘gaming’ yet the championship provides a huge amount of French revision prior to summer term exams.”

The lead changed hands numerous times in the Challenge Cup Grande, for schools with more than 500 registered students. The eventual winners with 1,152,440 points were Haybridge High School after a phenomenal final day, during which they leapfrogged Burntwood School and dug in to hold on to the top spot. Kevin Kilmartin, head of MFL at Haybridge, said,

“I’ve never seen such a buzz around the MFL department and I was so proud not only to win     the championships but also to see so many students of both sexes and of all ability levels so motivated and engaged in their language learning.”

The top four schools – Haybridge High School, Burntwood School, Watford Grammar School for Boys and GEMS Wellington Academy DSO in Dubai – broke the million point mark, joining an elite group of schools which have managed that feat since our first championship in 2011. Kate Cannaby, MFL Coordinator at the Dubai school, had the following to say:

“In an international school like ours, language learning is so important and we are very proud of all our GEMS Wellington Silicon Oasis students for getting involved so enthusiastically in the competition and reaching the million point mark.”

All leaderboards – including language-specific competitions – from the Global Challenge are available to view at Massive congratulations to all of the schools and students who participated and a huge thank you from the Vocab Express team for making the championship a success. We hope to see you on the start line again in September for the League of Champions 2016!

Mandarin On the Up

Alex Marson, Product Manager at Toptrack Learning and Mandarin speaker, discusses the rise of Mandarin learning in the UK.

If you have been watching the news recently, you will have noticed that the UK and China are getting on ever so well, collaborating on trade and energy among other things. An interesting addition to that list is now language, with the UK government recently announcing an extra £10m in funding for the teaching of Mandarin Chinese in English schools. The plan is to increase the number of students taking the language at GCSE from the current modest total of 1000 to 5000 over a period of 5 years.

And this isn’t simply gesture politics. The recent Languages for the Future report commissioned by the British Council – well worth a read if you haven’t as yet – ranked Mandarin as the fourth most important language for the UK’s future, sandwiched between French and German. This took into account a number of factors, from strategic trade and business priorities to tourism and national security. Arguably another reason to add to this is common courtesy, since there are now more people learning English in China than there are native English speakers in the world. Perhaps the least we can do is to learn to count to ten!

There is another reason for learning Mandarin, less frequently cited than the sorts of strategic business interests hardly likely to resonate with young learners, which is that it is fascinating and fun. An increasing number of primary schools are now beginning to offer the language – and why not! How exciting for a young child to learn about Chinese characters and even learn to read some of them. And say it *very* quietly, but in many ways it isn’t as difficult as you might assume. Take away the characters and what you have is actually a language with a relatively simple structure and a set of grammar rules which don’t come close to the head-scratching exceptions and counter-exceptions of, say, French or German.

There are of course challenges involved in learning a language so far removed from our own. The first main challenge, already mentioned, is of course the characters. There is really no shortcut when it comes to building your vocabulary: it’s simply a case of continually plugging away, day after day. Incidentally it is far more important to be able to read than to write the characters, since recognition is enough to enable you to type in the language: typing is entirely phonetic.

The second challenge is with pronunciation. It will come as news to nobody that Chinese pronunciation has little in common with English. Learners first have to grasp the 21 ‘initials’ and 16 ‘finals’ – effectively consonants and vowels respectively – some of which do require some retraining (or re-educating!) of the mouth muscles. Then there is the small matter of the four tones, which can change the meaning of a particular sound beyond all recognition. From personal experience, this can make for some embarrassing situations…

The good news is that Vocab Express is here to help with both challenges. We have vocabulary lists for all levels, giving students the opportunity to learn the vocabulary they need in an engaging way, earning points in the process. We also have a new feature on the way which will allow students to input Chinese characters (using the pinyin input method) within the Vocab Express application, without having to enable additional languages on your computer or device. On the pronunciation front, we have native speaker audio to accompany all of our Chinese vocab lists, meaning that accurate pronunciation is being reinforced at all times. As students progress through their vocabulary learning, they are also honing their listening – and even speaking – skills without even knowing it.

Digital Divide

It’s not all doom and gloom!

It’s easy sometimes to look at the headlines and conclude that it’s a pretty bleak time for Modern  Foreign Languages in the UK. Drops in the number of students opting for languages at GCSE , A Level and at university ; unfilled teacher training places ; and an all-new GCSE syllabus set to arrive in language teachers’ laps ready for first teaching from September 2016!

But it’s certainly not all doom and gloom…

A fascinating recent article in the Guardian examined the ‘digital language divide’, the extent to which your language affects your experience of the internet . The report contains a number of fascinating observations and examples, both general and specific, including the surprising number of languages with little to no online presence and the role the digital divide plays in determining whether minority languages survive or become extinct. However the observation that struck me, within the context of language teaching and learning in the UK, came at the very beginning. While in the mid 90’s English made up 80% of the content on the internet, this has now shrunk to just 30%. This means a wealth of new information online in other languages to be exploited by teachers and learners.

Increasingly, a large proportion of the average young person’s time is spent online, with using technology fast becoming second nature. And while there are certainly potential problems associated with that – for instance, the number of hours spent reading books is reported to be dropping at much the same rate as the time spent ‘surfing’ is increasing – it provides a fantastic opportunity for teachers. Increasingly schools are recognising the need to embrace this and take full advantage of the additional opportunities it affords. The internet is of course full to the brim with authentic foreign language resources, as well as interesting and varied websites and apps – both language-specific and not – but it has also transformed the ability of teachers to come together as a community and share resources and idea, from Facebook and Twitter (#mfltwitterati, anyone?) to forums and blogs.

With the vast majority of students now in possession of mobile phones which are at least to some extent ‘smart’, a modern day classroom – even one without computers or tablets – contains more technology than we could even have dreamed of just 5 or 10 years ago. Before you even begin discussing the wealth of apps – both free and paid-for – out there for language learning, these devices are a camera, video camera, voice recorder and word processor all in one!

And despite an endless series of newspaper articles and radio interviews featuring commentators scandalised at the thought of a mobile phone being used in a classroom, there are plenty of languages teachers up and down the country finding innovative ways to reap the benefits of the supercomputers in their students’ pockets. At Vocab Express, we were staggered by the response of students to the launch of our mobile app, allowing them to be doing their vocabulary or grammar learning on the move, in their natural habitat: the mobile phone! A teacher commented at the time that “mobile technology is a format students are familiar with, and because of this we’ve found that they are more likely to take greater ownership of their learning, thus it’s incredibly conducive to their success.”

And young people *are* prepared to engage with languages. The prevalence and popularity of fun, almost game-like apps and websites runs counter to the idea that learning a language is “too difficult” or “takes too much time”. The Speak to the Future campaign launched the 1000 Words Challenge last year, with a view to encouraging people to learn 1000 words in a new language. To date, more than 30,000 people have registered to practise these words on Vocab Express, of which the vast majority are 18 or under.

We are keen to tap into students’ enthusiasm for interactive, online tools. Our recent League of Champions competition saw more than 33,000 students from around 250 schools competing to earn points by learning vocabulary in any of 14 different languages. Teachers reported engagement and enthusiasm from even the unlikeliest of students, and that this kind of event – with the languages department embracing the internet – is a great way of boosting the profile of languages within the school.

Learning foreign languages at primary school, what’s all the fuss?

In 2011 Michael Gove announced to the Guardian that every child should learn foreign languages from age five, and now four years on, primary schools must teach pupils a second language as part of the National Curriculum.

Why is it so important, you ask? Well the answer is simple.

The ability to speak more than one languages is a gift; something that opens up a number of doors, which may otherwise have remained shut.

Job prospects, for example, can be boosted by a second language, with many employers requiring it, and many more seeing it as a desirable trait. However going beyond that, being able to speak another language can be hugely beneficial on a more personal level. It can allow you to make friends with people who you may not otherwise have been able to communicate with, not to mention the evidence suggesting that learning another language is good for the brain and may even prevent the onset of cognitive impairment.

While the benefits of being bilingual are vast and well-supported, learning another language can be challenging to say the least.

Research has indicated that the ability to learn another language decreases with age and those who become bilingual at an early age are far more likely to behave and reflect like native speakers.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon, with Lenneberg’s research on the biological foundations of language (1967) suggesting that on average the brain’s ability to acquire another language declines with age, particularly beyond the mid-teens.

This in mind, it’s no wonder compulsory language learning has been extended to primary schools! We need to ensure that young people are given the best possible chance at adopting a new language, and ultimately, this means teaching a second language as early as possible.

New Year: a time for reflection and celebration

As always, the new year has come around at rocket speed, and it feels almost as though January 2015 began before January 2014 had a chance to come to an end. So before we find ourselves fast-tracked to 2016, recounting the events of this year, we’d like to take a moment to reflect on and to celebrate 2014’s successes.

Last year continued to be an interesting year for the education sector and saw modern foreign languages remain a focus for educational reform. If all goes to plan, it seems that by 2016 we will be looking at a very different education system.

2014 was also an incredibly busy year for us at Vocab Express, full to the brim with exciting things, some of which include:

Setting new records for Vocab Express’ championships

Kicking things off in March, the Global Challenge saw more than 28,000 students show off their foreign language skills, competing for a winning spot and collectively scoring a whopping 32 million points. Following suit, 33,000 students from more than 200 schools battled it out for the top spot in the League of Champions in October, scoring over 34 million points in 13 languages. The participation last year was beyond anything we’d expected and we can’t wait to see our championships grow even more in 2015.

Encouraging healthy competition

With our championships scoring points with students and teachers nationwide, we launched a new competitions feature last year, based on feedback from our customers. This allows schools to set up in-house competitions, meaning schools can now run their own mini championships. As well as setting up leaderboards to track the performance of individuals students, classes or entire year groups, they can also filter these by language should they want to do so. The perfect way to inject fun in to any language classroom!

 Partnering up with language leaders

Once again in 2014 we continued to support Routes into Languages’ Foreign Language Spelling Bee and Speak to the Future’s 1000 Words Challenge, for which we teamed up with Oxford University Press to provide a free online language learning platform specifically for participants. There’s still time to sign up for this, but be quick as availability is limited!

Last year also saw us partner with the Language Show Live, Speak to the Future and Oxford University Press, to launch the new Strictly 1000 Words national language competition, requiring entrants to submit a short video using no more than 1,000 words in another language. You can check out the winners’ videos here.

Receiving recognition

It wasn’t only the summer making us smile in August, as Vocab Express’ assignment module was commended in the ‘Technological Innovation of the Year’ category for Teach Secondary’s inaugural Technology and Innovation Awards, in association with LEGO® Education. And there we were thinking that 2014 couldn’t get any better!

All in all 2014 was an excellent year, and we plan to continue this upward curve this year, channelling our efforts in to making Vocab Express bigger and better than ever. In addition to the Global Challenge (4th – 10th March 2015) and the League of Champions, Vocab Express will be introducing a number of new and improved features to enhance usability for teachers and students, so keep an eye out for that!

With plenty on the horizon, we’re looking forward to seeing what the coming year brings. In the meantime, we’d like to wish you the best of luck for 2015, wherever it may take you!

Congratulations and celebrations!

League of Champions 2014 logo

The results are in for the League of Champions 2014 and what a competition it has been! As the largest Vocab Express language championship ever, almost 33,000 students from more than 200 schools across the UK and as far as the Caribbean, Oman, India and Brunei took part!

Following on from the championship we’ve heard from a number of schools, how much their students loved competing, regardless of where they ended up on the league tables. We’d like to take this opportunity to say a huge congratulations to everyone who competed.

While Vocab Express has run a number of exciting language championships over the past few years, it’s great to hear from some of the ‘first timers’. Battling it out for the top spots in French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Mandarin, Japanese, Russian, Urdu, Arabic, Hebrew and Latin, Gillian Cowie, curriculum coordinator for Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) at Littleover Community School shares her school’s experience: “I just want to say as a new recruit to Vocab Express how fantastic the League of Champions was. Our students really embraced it and some of the least likely individuals became truly obsessed with moving up the league table as well as contributing to the school’s overall position. It was a great motivator for learning languages and we look forward to distributing certificates in next week’s assembly.”

As for those schools that have already competed in previous championships, we’re thrilled to hear how fantastically they’ve done this time round. Ailsa Weymes-McElderry, head of MFL at Streatham and Clapham High School says of her school’s success: “We had a great time taking part in the League of Champions and actually tripled the record of our overall score in previous years! In French it was almost the same! We have to buy mountains of chocolate now as we set students a target of 5,000 points and so many reached this. Hopefully there aren’t any dental bills heading our way from parents!”

We are always impressed by student dedication in each and every one of our competitions and the League of Champions 2014 was no exception. It sounds as if there were some late nights during the course of the week, with many students plugging away at all hours. Jamie McAllister curriculum learning leader for MFL at Ysgol Aberconwy explains: “I was amazed at how addicted so many of our students became and some were competing against each other into the early hours of the morning!”

Language learning doesn’t have to be limited to the common European languages usually studied in class. Many competing schools clearly recognised this, trying out a variety of languages on offer for the competition. As the runaway winners, Christoph Link, curriculum leader of German at Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar School comments: “The opportunity to discover other languages was a great motivator and so many girls ventured into Japanese, Hebrew, Italian and Portuguese.” This certainly paid off as Christoph adds: “In the end 628 of our 1,060 students contributed to a clear victory which saw us almost 60,000 points ahead of the runner-up.”

Learning another language is more than just learning vocabulary, it’s about opening a person’s eyes to another culture, to a different set of values and a different way of life. At Vocab Express we strive to help students recognise the importance of language learning and the opportunities available to them through this.

We hope to see even more young linguists taking part in our next championship, the Global Challenge 2015. Stay tuned for dates!

For more information on our language championships and to see the full list of winners, visit:

From the classroom to espionage to the other side of the world, where will studying languages take you?

As we enter October, many students will be busy settling into their final year of university, and will no doubt be preparing for life after graduation. Others will be working out which subjects to take as they draw closer to A-Levels or GCSEs. Regardless of educational level, young people across the country will be thinking about potential career choices. While many students associate studying a language with a job in translating, interpreting or teaching, there are a number of other professions that will be quick to snap up graduates with the ability to speak a second language!

 Secret Services

While the location of the MI5 headquarters is no longer a secret (or so we are led to believe!), what goes on behind closed doors remains a mystery for those on the outside. But for language graduates, the ability to speak multiple languages may be their exclusive ticket in. The secret services are always on the lookout for the very best language specialists to translate and interpret vital intelligence, which can help to protect the nation against potential terrorist attacks.

Not-for-profit sector        

Many charitable organisations, particularly those which work with refugees or asylum seekers, need employees who can speak a second language. Work can range from interpreting, teaching English as a foreign language, and case work, which can include helping to find suitable accommodation for an individual and making sure that their needs are met.

 Game testing

According to a Guardian article on language careers, there may well be some wackier career options out there for language graduates. Ever fancied working as a video game tester? You can if you have language skills, testing games in a variety of languages to ensure that they are running correctly before being launched on to the market. You can also translate video game content and scripts. If gaming is your passion, what better way to combine business and pleasure?


Speaking a foreign language can be a distinct advantage for those hoping to get into journalism. With technology connecting the world, many publications and media companies are seeking employees with language skills to communicate with overseas contacts, as well as to produce and translate work in other languages. And to top it all off, if you are keen to see the world, being fluent in another language can help you to secure work abroad in travel journalism or as a foreign correspondent, as well as a range of other industries.

So even if you’re still at school, considering taking a language for GCSE or when you leave for A-Level, you can be rest assured the ability to speak a second language will no doubt open many doors. As for students currently studying for a language degree, as the saying goes, you have the world at your feet.


Lost in translation?

Recent advances in technology are now helping to break down language barriers and revolutionise the role of traditional translators. As a recent article in the Guardian reports, Microsoft prepares to unveil its Star Trek translator, a Skype service that can understand spoken words and translate them into another language, speaking them back in real time. But how far can translator technology go?

On the one hand, languages do not lend themselves to computer algorithms as readily as other human disciplines. Everyday conversation is full of false-starts and errors that speakers and listeners rarely notice, but which can confuse computers. Moreover, translation is made even more challenging by tone of voice, cultural references, idioms and humour. Many words do not have a direct translation, because the concepts simply do not exist in another culture.

Time is a factor too; the rules that govern grammar change over the years meaning old words die out, and new ones are coined. It’s also very common for one word to have multiple meanings. Using the word ‘great’ for example, “Jonny was great at football” has a different meaning to “Mike had a great big portion of pasta”. Likewise, one meaning can have multiple words and are often used interchangeably; consider the word ‘dirty’, people also use the words ‘filthy’, ‘grimy’, ‘grubby’, ‘mucky’ etc. to describe the same thing.

On the other hand though, new technologies like Microsoft’s Star Trek translator and older ones like Google Translate can be used by professional translators who have to deal with scarce resources available to them. Translators also have the benefit of computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools to ensure terminology is consistent in lengthy documents and to help speed up their work.

What’s more translators are able to use terminology databases to research complex or specific terminology that they wouldn’t necessarily use in everyday life.

And there are other technologies that support language learning generally. The potential of video is vast; it can be used to give learners instructions, present them with material and even to produce videos themselves. Use of technology for language learning has also moved towards the internet and social networks which allows learners to join online groups that share interests in particular languages. Technology can also provide audio-video materials that can be paused, repeated, slowed down or sped up, while other tools can be used to record and analyse a learner’s own speech.

Online and mobile vocabulary learning applications like Vocab Express are also of real benefit. Originally designed with the assistance of a number of leading language departments, today we work with more than 600 schools across the UK to support effective language learning.

Ultimately, language translation and language learning technologies are there to provide a helping hand. With these at your fingertips, there’s no reason for anyone to miss out on the excitement of learning a new language, as well as all the benefits that multilingualism has to offer.

Making the leap from primary to secondary language learning

With September in full swing, the new academic year has brought with it a number of fresh changes and additions to the National Curriculum, including the requirement for all primary schools to teach a foreign language at Key Stage 2. This will surely be good news to all secondary school language departments, keen to help students develop a love for languages as early as possible.

Now all students are set to enter Year 7 with at least a basic grounding in a second language, allowing them to enjoy a smoother transition to secondary language learning. At least that’s the idea.

The reality however, is that the Government’s guidance on implementing the new language curriculum has been rather limited, leaving it up to primary schools to make important decisions about how and what language/s to teach, and whether to extend this to Key Stage 1 students too. The result of this will see secondary schools having to accommodate students with varying ability levels and exposure to language learning. On top of this, a report by the British Council and CfBT Trust found that just 27 per cent of state secondary schools were confident that they could offer their Year 7 pupils the same language they learned in primary school.

But as Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, once said: “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself”, and language learning is no exception! If all primary and secondary schools within the same locality work together to align their language teaching, the new curriculum will be in a much stronger position to fulfil its purpose; creating a generation of multilinguists fit for an international job market.

Taking the lead on this is the London Borough of Hackney, with its 52 primary schools having made the united decision to introduce Spanish as the first language taught to students. This consortium of primary schools have also agreed on how this will be taught – through one dedicated lesson a week, as well as weaving vocabulary into other subjects and classroom activities on a daily basis, which can really help bring languages to life for students. To add to this, the Borough has ensured that all of its 11 secondary schools will continue to offer Spanish as part of the language curriculum.

This is an excellent example of how collaboration between schools can ease the jump from primary to secondary language learning for both students and teachers, and here at Vocab Express we’re looking forward to seeing far more of this over the next year!