Friday, August 22, 2008

We're crap at languages - so what?

The Guardian has got its self in to a lather over the GCSE language results:

Another year, another record low number of teenagers taking GCSEs in foreign languages. Britain's army of linguists is declining dangerously but nobody seems to care; not even Her Majesty's Intelligence Services, avid recruiters of polyglot patriots. Britain is moving closer to the monolingual abyss and doesn't even know it.

Since Tony Blair's decision in 2004 to make foreign languages optional for 14- to 16-year-olds (while claiming foreign languages to be a priority), almost 100,000 teenagers have dropped French; now the lucky few to study the language of the enlightenment number only 201,940. I could also talk of Thomas Mann's vernacular, now studied by only 76,695 British teenagers. And as for the words of Cervantes, these may be luring more pupils each year, but they are still a relative handful, at 66,978.

Don't get me wrong, I have travelled the world and worked on every continent except Australasia and know there is no better feeling than being able to at least say a few words in another language, which generally gets even the most reluctant native to switch to English. There is also nothing more embarrassing then seeing someone shouting every louder to try to get someone to understand them.

It would be nice if we could all speak a second language but there are no incentives. The non- English speaking world has English as its natural second language and puts a lot of effort in to teaching it. Not, as you may think, to talk to us and Americans, but so they can talk to each other. The Chinese speak English to Indians, Filipinos and even the Japanese. Even in Switzerland where they are all supposed to be able to get by in German, French and Italian I found they tend to switch to English amongst themselves.

We also teach languages too late and in the wrong way. Rather than teaching language as a bit of fun at an early age - teaching a few nursery rhymes, watching a few kids TV programmes and generally trying to give children a bit of confidence and a grounding, we throw them straight in to a formal learning environment, which get their backs up. My own experience from school and seeing my sons progress is that our language teachers are pretty poor teachers.

These problems are exacerbated by not having a natural second language which we aren't exposed to through foreign television products. This means that kids don't get exposed on a regular basis or try out words amongst themselves because they are learning different languages at school.

Yes, we do need language experts for industry, diplomacy, and even the spy services, but we did have 200,000 voluntarily studying a language FFS, if they can't find a few speakers from that lot there is something wrong.

So what to do about it? Firstly we have to get over our fear (arrogance?) of foreign languages. I would introduce children to a language at a very early stage, say 6 or 7, (yes I know they already have a lot on) but at a fun level for no more than 15 minutes a week. Teach them nursery rhymes, to count and a few basic words. Let them watch a few kids programmes in that language. As they get to 9 or 10 take it to a few useful sentences, again no more then 20 minutes, but make it fun, show children that there is nothing inherently difficult in a second language.

Once they get to around 14 I would have 2 streams of language teaching, a formal one for those with aptitude and desire and an informal one. The formal would would do as they do now and go on to be the linguists that we need, without the distraction of those who don't want to learn. The informal would be more of a social club, maybe in the lunch hour or after school. They wouldn't be challenged by have to learn to read and write the language or even do formal grammar, they would just learn to hold basic conversations, ask for things in restaurants etc, still making it fun.

So which language should schools teach, even at this fun level? It doesn't matter as long as they do something. Most schools will have a teacher who has a bit of a language and they can be paid a bit extra to work with the children on this informal basis. So what about when the teacher leaves of they move schools? Again it doesn't matter if they switch languages, its about teaching the children not to be scared of the language, that way when they do start to travel they will have the confidence to pick up a guide book and learn a few words and use them. They will also find that Johnny Foreigner switches to English more readily, for they want to practice their English in my experience.

There is one language I wouldn't teach though, French. The reason I say this is because the French are intolerant of foreigners speaking their language and this puts people off. It was a German that told me he enjoyed learning English because we encouraged him and didn't care if he mispronounced a word, we took his meaning and carried on. The French he said, correctly in my opinion, would shrug and pretend not to understand.

Having said all that, I do agree with the thrust of the article that having a second or even third language is a joy, but we aren't succeeding so we have to try something else.


TheFatBigot said...

This is such a difficult issue. On the one hand there is little point learning another language if everyone else knows English, on the other it's terribly disrespectful to visit another country and not know enough of their language to get by.

Perhaps my own reluctance to visit non-English speaking countries is caused by the memory of Ted Heath's tortured Franglais during his miserable premiership.

Alex Case said...

"Britain's army of linguists is declining dangerously..." and then goes on to speak about German and French. Do they not think the danger might be in a lack of Arabic or Pashtun speakers rather than German speakers?

I agree with your point about starting young and then teaching anything as long as it's fun. All the evidence suggests that any positive effect gained from children starting a foreign language (rather than moving to another country and becoming bilingual) young is due to the positive feelings they get from the experience rather than any particular skills they pick up.

I also agree that we aren't going to learn French when there is none of it in the charts, on the TV or being spoken in our neighbourhood. The solution to that is obviously to study Hindi, Polish and Arabic instead. Despite the PC aspect of that suggestion, you won't find Guardian Education suggesting it because a whole load of Guardian reading French teachers and German teachers would be forced to put in a bit more work or even be out of a job to be replaced by native speakers of the languages in question.

The Great Simpleton said...


I had in mind what that very point about Hindi, Polich and even Arabic. Certain areas will have specialist resources through immigration. It makes sense for young children to use those languages.


As I say French is out anyway, they don't encourage foreigners to speak their language. I'd forgotten about Heath, toe curling. To be fair to Blair he learned the language well enough to address the French parliament.

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