I recently read and published to Facebook a link about language learning in the UK which stated that poor language skills are “hampering the UK economy”. In case you missed it, you can read it here; ARTICLE
The gist of the article is that The British Council claims that the UK has a shortage of people who are able to speak any of the top 10 most important world languages. What a surprise. As a qualified Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) teacher with 3 years of experience in MFL classrooms, a degree in International Business and Spanish and a two-time expat, I could’ve told anybody who would care to listen that this problem exists. And I am sure any other MFL teacher in the country could do the same too. The English aren’t known as a nation of budding linguists, plenty of people questioned why I was learning a second language and told me I didn’t need to bother because I speak English, and so can everyone else. Encouraging, huh?
So, yes, it’s true; this problem exists. And I believe I can tell you exactly why. It is, in my opinion, just another thing in the long list of failings of the English education system. I am going to take a second here to point out that this is all my personal opinion, yours may well differ and that is completely fine by me.
1. Language learning isn’t compulsory
Firstly, languages are not compulsory in state schools in England. Is that helping the cause? I think not. Learning a language is hard, of course it is, so given the choice at 14 years old, a lot of students will pass up the opportunity to study a language further, walking away with only a basic grasp of the days of the week and perhaps a vague, vague notion of how to conjugate the present tense. Roughly. And who can blame them for making this decision? Teachers are not allowed to make language learning fun. Now, by this I don’t mean that it states in the teacher rule book “you must make your lessons as boring as possible” but what MFL teachers, as with all teachers, do face is the constant pressure of showing student progress, collecting data and making sure the students are working at, or above, their target. (I believe this is a whole other area of failing – why set a target and then monitor a student, or teacher, on how often they surpass that target? Anyway, that is for me to discuss in another article. I digress…) To ensure that the whole scheme of work is taught and assessed in the allotted time period and also to make sure that we can demonstrate student progress every 20 minutes, this means MFL teachers simply do not have any wriggle room to pass on their love for the language they teach, tell stories about their time living in that country or teach cultural lessons to develop a curiosity for the language the students are learning about. All these things have to be tucked in somewhere within an hour’s lesson where there are already another 15 hoops to jump through along with the behaviour of 30 children to manage. Apparently it is vitally important that a student can tell anyone who asks which level they are working at and what they have to do to get to the next one, but it doesn’t matter if they think the official language spoken in Brazil is Spanish or that they cannot point to France on a map.
2. There is a one-size-fits-all approach to languages in the UK
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have taught a wide variety of students and I acknowledge fully that not everyone is cut out to study a language to GCSE level, and certainly not within the current parameters of the GCSE qualification. If languages are to be compulsory, this isn’t to say that we should have a one-size-fits-all approach with only one type of languages qualification, as is the case in many schools. The British Councils’ Languages for the Future report calls for languages to be given the same focus in schools as maths and science. Well, take a look at maths and science – most schools do not just offer ‘science’ or ‘maths,’ there are a variety of courses; GCSE sciences taught as separate qualifications, combined science qualifications, OCR Nationals… And let’s not forget that children are learning maths and science skills from infancy. I think it is perfectly acceptable to teach languages for business use or conversational languages with a focus on communication and fun to those students who it would better suit. It doesn’t have to be GCSE or nothing.
3. Current GCSE languages qualifications are not designed to facilitate real language learning
For the students who, by some miracle or perhaps just because of really, really good teaching, do decide to carry on with their language to GCSE, then there is more ridiculousness waiting around the corner. The current format of GCSE languages (for the Edexcel board at least, as that is what I am familiar with) requires students to complete 4 pieces of controlled assessment across the course in the skill areas of writing and speaking. These assessments are weighted at 15% each, with the remaining 40% coming from the GCSE examination covering the two remaining skills of listening and reading. To complete a piece of controlled assessment, take writing for example, students can have 5 hours preparation time within the classroom in “controlled conditions” to write a piece of coursework using the stimulus (provided by the teacher) and their books, worksheets, class work and homework, but with no input from anyone else. The students are then expected to learn this work by heart and, with the help of no more than 30 words of notes, return to the class room on a set day to write their work out from memory. Tell me, what on earth is the point of that? How is this facilitating language learning? Where are the key skills of learning how to manipulate verbs, understand genders, adjectival endings and agreements, sentence structure, vocabulary learning and spelling? They aren’t needed because it is simply a test of memory. The better your memory, the better you will do. Simple as that. Technically speaking, you could complete this piece of work and get an A* grade and not understand a word of the language or what you have written down. So long as you remember it all, you’re golden. Also, if the first time of asking doesn’t go too well, students can repeat this process to try for a better grade, removing the urgency or seriousness for some students and opening the door for schools to force students to keep having another crack at it to boost their grades and ultimately make the school look better. The good news here is that, under current proposals, I believe this is set to change by 2015.
Fast forward to A Level languages and the requirements shift completely; whereas students have just spent the years up to GCSE learning what they need to know off by heart to complete a mundane task, they return after a 6 week summer break as a 6th former and are now miraculously supposed to be able to form their own opinions and hold sustained conversations about cultural elements such as cinema, fashion and music. All of which we had no time to teach them about at GCSE. The message is far too muddled and confusing. Why are we teaching languages at all? It should be because it is fun, promotes tolerance and acceptance, improves communication skills, provides wider job prospects and brings cultures and people closer together, not just to pass an exam.
4. Age 11 is far too late to start learning a second language
Another point is that we leave what little language learning we offer far, far too late in England. By age 11 we have missed out on many of the years when children absorb new things quickly. The Fédération des Parents Francophones de Colombie Britannique has an interesting article which states that “specialists agree that there is a decline in the ability to learn a second language after about the age of 6 or 7.” So why do we not start teaching languages properly until students reach high school at age 11? Languages in primary schools in England, where they are taught at all, can be hit and miss. Sometimes there is no specialist to teach it and no coordination with the main feeder high school, meaning that if primary students are lucky enough to learn a language for a while, it is often not the same language they will then go on to study at high school and the students start again from square one in a brand new language.
5. Adult language classes are thriving, but is it really too late?
Along with teaching in a main stream school, I also had the privilege of working at an adult Language College for a couple of years, teaching Spanish to adults. My class for beginners Spanish was always full, with upwards of 20 students in the class. When I conducted a survey of my students to see why they were learning a language, many said that it was so they could retire abroad, some said it was for fun and everyone said they wished they had done it when they were younger. Often, upon completion of the course, some of my students would take the exact same course again during the next term because they just couldn’t make their learning stick. They had too many other things on their minds; work, children, families, bills etcetera and their brains had no space left to store these new words and structures. They also had no time during the weekly grind to complete homework or independent learning and reinforcement, which is the only way to make it really sink in. Unlike when they were little and had nothing but time to complete homework and a fresh, young mind for moulding. Oh, the beauty of hindsight.
So, what now?
I agree with the article wholeheartedly, it is accurate – we don’t have enough people in the UK who are learning another language and, in my opinion, the points above go a long way to pointing out why we have this problem. But now it has been acknowledged, the real question is; what is going to be done about it?