back to article UK foreign language teaching hits all-time low

Foreign language teaching in the UK's state schools has been reduced to "the sort of thing you find in a 'get by' phrase book", claims a doom-and-gloom report published yesterday. That's the conclusion of The Corruption of the Curriculum by Shirley Lawes, which indicates that the government's decision in 2004 to allow GCSE …

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Rob

Dumbing down...

... of foreign languages is the least of our worries. Most school leavers can't spell, write or speak proper English anyway, trying to teach them another is like flogging a dead horse.

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Le souris manges les fromages

I took GCSE French and German and got a respectable grade in both.

Ten years on and the only phrases I remember from either langauge are the ones anyone could find in a tourist phrase book, and weird useless phrases about mice eating cheese picked up from those awful audio clips we were played.

I dont think we as a country can afford NOT to teach our kids languages other than English. The benefits of being multilungual are (or should be) obvious. Raising a generation of kids who can only speak English (very poorly, at that) is an appalling prospect.

It just needs to be taught in a far better manner than the "mechanical and boring" way we all remember from school.

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Anonymous Coward

I find the biggest problem is...

Perhaps we should consider that there is no need (Unlike in other parts of the world) to speak an EU foreign language. It is an indulgence of the Middle classes. What we do need is good scince and IT.

However EU languages may not be much use, but what we do need is Chinese, Japaniese and Arabic (with Punjabi, Urdu and Bengali) are vital languages that can open doors to employment. As far as I am concirnd those languages can make you a vital team member. French means that Parisien Waters dont look down on you (However they are quight happy with people who are not native English speekers speeking English to them... why is it only the English who seem to be lookd down on for not being fluent in every language)

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Relevant languages

As a naturally tri-lingual person and having aquired enough of a smattering in 6 others to get by in my daily needs, I think the teaching of a foreign language is a good thing. However, the _choice_ of a language is where the problem lies !!

What is the benefit in teaching kids French or German to GCSE standards if they are NEVER going to work in France or Germany ?? Kids will never be willing to suffer through years of "boring torture" just for the sake of a few days' holiday ! On the other hand, the three most widely used languages in the world are, in descending order, English, Chinese and Spanish. English, they learn at home and at school. Chinese and Spanish will enable the kids to get better jobs when they finish school because that is where the demand for languages is !! It also makes travelling abroad a lot easier since many places in the world use one or more of the three languages !!

Then again, the most commonly used and widely understood language is expressed by the waving of large-denomination local currency notes to attract and retain the attention of the local serving person(s) !!

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Anonymous Coward

Nothing new.

Really, it isn't all that new.

I went through high school in the mid-nineties and there wasn't language teaching didn't seem to be taken seriously -- the whole course was taught to the exam. IE we weren't taught structures, forms, etc based on the teacher's background or the class's requirements -- we were just taught to use the material that was going to appear in the exam and how to answer those questions.

For four years, we studied unnatural, meaningless (who cares about hamsters?), unconnected phrases with a side-serving of verb tables.

The powers-that-be have taken the slow road to self-fulfilling prophecy:

They didn't teach grammar properly, because "kids wouldn't be interested", and now we can see that kids didn't learn it, because they weren't interested. We weren't interested because the teachers weren't interested -- we learned by example!

It is unfortunate that we now seem to be accepting the fallacy that a phrase with meaning is meaningful learning. "May I enquire as to what is the soup of the day?" certainly has a meaning, but parroting is rote learning, not meaningful learning.

Meaningful learning lets you relate the learning to your own experience. "I don't know." "Have you seen it?" "I have to leave." These phrases don't have much inherent meaning out of context, but you can relate to them better: you are forced to create a context from your own experience making the learning process personal and meaningful.

Yours,

A geek retraining to be a teacher.

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What's a GCSE for anyway?

Particularly regarding the Bootnote: It seems to me that the correspondent, clearly scarred by his language-learning experiences*, is suffering from a confusion between the provision of basic practical language skills and the achievement of a level of language understanding that might be useful in an academic context.

Why should children do a GCSE in every damn thing? GCSEs are a marker of attainment in an academic context and should be helpful to getting further either in education, or in employment - neither purpose is served with rudimentary Spanish. Nor should it be.

Children being taught languages at a "phrasebook" standard in schools - whether that means Spanish or Arabic or Chinese or whatever other language - is a good thing. In my experience of foreign languages and travel, a little effort (please, thank you, yes, no, hello, goodbye) goes a very long way, and is well worth undertaking. But what does this have to do with GCSEs? It's a sad thing that our schools increasingly focus on getting meaningless qualifications for everything, devaluing the qualifications themselves, and failing to support pupils appropriately into the bargain.

This is the point of the main body of the article, isn't it? Thanks to a government policy which seems best described as "inject chaos; rinse; repeat" over the course of the last ten years or so, state schools appear to be falling behind the independent sector, regardless of the money that is nominally injected into the system. It shouldn't be that way.

Sad.

Incidentally, how is this Technology-related?

* I sympathise utterly: I also hated both my Latin and French learning experiences at school, for identical reasons. In contrast, German was taught brilliantly (thank you Mr Cadogan), and many years after learning these languages I can still converse in them. (Well maybe not Latin, it doesn't come up all that often...)

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Fog in the Channel, Europe isolated

No, Lester, it's your attitude that is patronising. I hope you don't really subscribe to the boorish notion that foreign waiters should be shouted at in English.

Like you, I studied French for five years. That was almost thirty years ago, yet I still remember enough of it to be able to speak to French waiters in their own language, and -- surprise! -- none of them are petulant. Not even in Paris.

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Which languages

To say that it is trendy languages are in the ascendant rejects the facts. Chinese is being promoted on economic grounds and anyone taking an Arabic course quickly realises most people study it for religious reasons.

Also to denigrate Spanish over French and German fails to take into account it has 225 milion speakers compared to 70 and 120 for French and German respectively.

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Proper language skills are important

I am incredulous: I know the UK government is incompetent and seems to be promoting the creation of a drone class. But really, a proper grasp of other European languages for inhabitants of a European group of islands is absolutely necessary. Naturally, study of French or German or any other language has to include the nuts and bolts of grammar, customs and even literature, if one is to do any more than ask for an ice cream and misunderstand the answer.

I have worked in the Far East, now I work in Switzerland and even in UK I worked with people whose native language is not English. I never considered myself a linguist: just middling O levels in French and Latin, yet I managed to use French properly and have learned Cantonese and German since, not perfectly, but a good working and social grasp; thank God I was pushed through French and Latin at school. Strangely, continental children and adults generally have got little problem with another language. Are the modern British really so dim? Our forefathers assumed some linguistic ability as part of being educated and civilised. We deserve to go ever more downhill. Soon we shall be a mono-linguistic minority: even the USA is expected to be predominantly Spanish speaking within a few years (and many would dispute that they speak English all ready).

The sad bit is that home-based Brits seem to boast of their linguistic incompetence. I hear that maths. is being simplified to functional essentials too. Oh brave new world.

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Foreign Languages

I actually find it quite impressive that seeing as we are meant to be heading into a world where cultures mix, that we are still treading the fine line of being regarded as ignorant concerning foreign languages.

Having had a private education (to the age of 13) and then a state education (to the age of 18), i found that the private education gave me the knowledge of how it worked, whereas the state education gave me the real world applications. Maybe i was just lucky in state education all those years ago.

Pfft maybe it should become compulsary to learn Latin and Ancient Greek, as well as a modern language. At least after that, you can pick up most European languages a bit easier.

Maybe the ones learning Spanish are hoping for a career in Spain (footballers and bar staff maybe?)

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Targets that don't help

Pass rates in exams are one way to dumb down the curricula for the exam environment as a whole. If languages exam pass rates are low, stop teaching the ones who won't pass so there aren't so many failures.

It costs too much after all to increase teaching standards and there are nowhere near enough language-trained primary teachers to start teaching foreign languages where it'll do the most good.

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xjy

People programmed to prattle

That's the laugh - everywhere people need to do it, they learn to speak two or more languages to whatever level their need requires.

It's not learning and using languages that's hard, but doing it for regimented and artificial reasons in regimented and learning-hostile institutions - like British schools.

Think for about half-a-sec about why so many people speak such good English around the world, and what they do with this skill...

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Anonymous Coward

Perhaps children don't need to understand the benefits

I don't remember maths lessons at school being packed full of attempts to explain the potential benefits of understanding mathematics. This is probably just as well because for some children it would be harder to understand the benefits of understanding mathematics than to understand the mathematics itself.

So, why should children learning French have to understand the benefits of learning French? And what are those benefits anyway?

I don't think an ability to communicate in French is the main reason for learning French at school. In my opinion, the main benefit from school language lessons is a transferrable skill in learning foreign languages. The foreign language people need later in life probably won't be one they learnt at school, but if they had the experience of learning French at school then they'll find it a lot easier to learn Portuguese, Russian or whatever later.

The prevalence of French in UK schools is an old, self-perpetuating tradition: because lots of people learn French at school, lots choose it at university, and we end up with more teachers qualified to teach it than other arguably more useful languages.

However, if we accept that the main reason for school language teaching is to give children a transferrable skill, then it doesn't matter so much which language is taught. Some would argue that Latin would be a good choice because of the complex grammar. I would disagree: Latin is too difficult for most children to learn to speak, and learning Latin involves memorising lots of tedious irregularities. I tend to think that Esperanto would be a good choice for school language teaching in the UK: as there are very few irregularities, children can concentrate on learning the useful, transferrable skills, and with Esperanto it is realistic for almost all children to reach a level at which they can actually converse, which encourages and motivates them as well as giving them an opportunity to acquire all the relevant skills (not just reading comprehension).

Esperanto has occasionally been taught in UK schools but I went to very traditional establishments where everyone learnt French and Latin. I've hardly used either language in practice, but I think they helped me learn German.

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Silver badge

Needs a different approach

I remember back in the early 80's we were taught French at the middle school (pre high school). All we learnt was masses of vocab and conversational stuff with plenty of emphasis on accent etc.. It was good fun and the teacher was enthusiastic too. I remember quite a lot of what I learnt and I was virtually top of my class for French.

However, I then went to High school and the method was very different. All they wanted to concentrate on was the written grammar, nous, vous etc. etc. It bored the hell out of me and took all the fun out of learning the language. Suffice to say when my options came round I dropped both French and German for Electronics and Computer Studies.

As far as I am concerned all that needs to be taught up to A level standard is conversational skills in whatever language. For the first four years of our lives we learn like this and it seems pretty effective. If you can read english you can roughly translate words in most western languages so thats fine. Just have fun learning to speak it first. Then go on to learn the formal grammar stuff later. I'm sure most folks would far prefer you having a good go and maybe using le instead of la rather than waving and shouting loudly.

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xjy

PS

Who helped me learn....

English? Mum (mmmm oral exercises...)

German? Iris

Swedish? Kerstin

Finnish? Eija, Musti

Greek? Brigitte

Icelandic? Eva

Serbo-Croat? Dunja, Zdenka, Ljiljana

Russian? Farida, Sveta

oh, and I'm interested in languages, too ;-)

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Try this: How to be obnxious in french

http://yoyo.cc.monash.edu.au/~mongoose/french/

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Anonymous Coward

You think that's bad----

Hey guys, try living in Wales. It is now compulsory to learn an archaic language (Welsh) which has slowed in develpement to the point where it has to borrow and "Taffify"(MY shorthand!) the English original. Cross the Severn Bridge, or in the North, the Welshpool border.and no one knows or cares what you're saying if you speak it. Could be the reason in this area why the drop off in foreign languages is prevelant. I was fortunate enough to learn German in school, and it was great fro me in the Army,and, later, in the police. It has been of great use to me throughout my life, in fact. It also gave me the incentive to learn some Dutch and Afrikaans(That's another story!) My Greek is not bad, but normal;ly starts and ends at the taverna door. But when you say in Greek to a Greek, "One for the road" (MIya ta ya dromo paracolo) it brings the house down. Push modern foreign languages says I! Must close now,and do my English homework!!!

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