Beneath all the traditional media publicity and right-wing outcry about public examinations results in England this last Thursday, there was one statistic that for me was very worrying indeed. I may be wrong, but I think only The Guardian highlighted it. Out of all the hundreds of thousands of young people who took A Level qualifications this year, there were less than 25000 entries for the most common Modern Foreign Languages, French, German and Spanish.
So what has caused this crisis in the learning of languages? Is it a recent thing? And what can we do about it?
I am a teacher of Modern Languages. In my school career I gained an O Level in French and German, A Levels in the same two subjects, and while I studied for my degree in German I studied a year of extra French and spent two years learning Dutch. Whilst training to become a teacher I studied Spanish for two years, getting to second-year undergraduate level , and added A Level Spanish 'for fun' in 1996. I also speak a very small amount of Italian. I have been involved in, and interested in Languages since 1980, you could say.
In 2005 I attended my first ever national conference for my union, spending an Easter week in not-so-sunny Brighton, and had the chance to meet a real-life education minister, The Hon Stephen Twigg MP, who now holds the post of Shadow Secretary of State for Education. Being a language teacher I immediately asked him why he and the Labour government of the time had scrapped the mandatory learning of a Modern Foreign Language up to the age of 16 in schools. His answer? Well he flustered and blustered and then said 'well, some pupils find modern languages difficult and become disaffected with them'. There was no attempt to try to ask me why they become disaffected, or no attempt to challenge me to enthuse students, there was simply a shrug of the shoulders and a seeming lack of understanding of the problem. It is, in my view, that simple decision, that stroke of the pen, that has led us to where we are now. At least partly, anyway.
Of course any blog post like this runs a risk. Just the very mention of the terms 'A Level' or GCSE immediately bring out the rabid few who, whilst frothing at the mouth, will immediately say that the exams of yesteryear were far more rigorous and there was less chance of anything untoward happening, as there was none of this newfangled coursework, or controlled assessment. Well (he says casting his mind back), how much of that is actually correct? I distinctly remember being told of schools where, in the dreaded dictation exam (I am still at a loss to understand its use) 'energetic' teachers would gesture in a purely coincidental manner upwards or downwards when there was an acute or grave accent in the text? What was the point of learning 40 quotes from a French or German set text off by heart and yet the essays weren't written in the language? And how has being able to translate a passage of writing by George Orwell into fluent German (as yours truly had to do in the S Level German Paper in 1987) prepared me for life in the United Kingdom in the 21st Century?
Quite simply, I feel, we need a Modern Languages curriculum that suits the needs, interests and lifestyles of the young people of today. To be honest I loathe the current curriculum. In Key Stage 2 young children learn to sing songs and learn some vocabulary and constructions, then in Key Stage 3 we are encouraged to teach them mind-numbing topics such as weather, travel and school, and then we are scuppered if we try to incorporate any hint of originality or fun into it, or try to be rigorous and stretch the students, as the GCSE curriculum is basically a rehash of Key Stage 3!
What I think we need, and it is about time I say something before a reader says 'so, baldie, how do you think it can be improved?', is to scrap the notion of national curricula and national GCSE exams. Let the Department for Education, led by the redoubtable Mr Gove, who is wont to listen to the opinions of others and take them on board (I won't tell you if my fingers are crossed there, but they are), sit down with teachers of Languages and work out an agreed set of criteria and standards of language that are suitable at, say, age 16, and let all teachers in their departments design a programme of study that is relevant to the needs of their students! Of course the work that is produced by the students will have to be moderated and standardised to ensure it meets the criteria to be worthy of a 16+ qualification, but surely a pupil being able to write with flair and enthusiasm about their favourite singer or film is far better than an anodyne 'letter of complaint to a hotel'?
My reasoning is this - modern languages are a means of communication, and there is no point in teaching young people to 'communicate' about things that they see as utterly pointless - that leads to diasaffection, lack of interest and a lack of 'sense of achievement', whereas if they can talk with passion and to quite a deep level about what they see as the imperfections in the England football team, they will see more purpose. I may be wrong, but surely 'academic, rigorous and relevant' is not just a firm of accountants, but is the ideal to which we can, and indeed should, aspire! That way there will not be such a jump when, hopefully in future, pupils study the subjects at a higher level and discus media, youth problems, society and politics, and can take their rightful place in the 'global village', rather than standing at the sidelines and shouting in English hoping that someone takes notice.
I'd appreciate your comments
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