Alarm bells are once again ringing in the ears of the modern languages fraternity following the publication of various statistics this past summer. CILT, the National centre for languages, is planning to launch another campaign to persuade young people of the value of studying a foreign language and its new director, Isabella Moore, has pledged to do her utmost to stem the flow of students abandoning the study of languages after the age of 14. In her view the challenge is either to encourage more young people to study languages or face the prospect of damaging Britain's long-term economic health. Too many youngsters believe that languages at key stages 4 and 5 are 'difficult' academic subjects and should be avoided and this misconception has to be removed. Ironically in many inner city schools I have found as many of 60 languages being spoken by pupils on a daily basis and yet we remain essentially a monolingual nation.

Why is the current situation so alarming? The decline in languages appears to have cast a shadow over another set of record A-level results this past summer with the announcement that the number of sixth formers studying French and German has dropped by over 50% since 1992. Predictably the picture for boys is far worse than it is for girls. To be fair Spanish numbers are up and it is now as popular a language at AS and A2 as German. There has also been a 6% rise in the numbers taking minority languages post 16. At GCSE the numbers taking French dropped by 4% in 2004 and by 3% in German despite an overall 3% rise in the numbers of 15/16 year olds sitting the exams. Numbers are also down in minority languages such as Russian and Italian and only Spanish has provided a glimmer of comfort in recent years as pupils believe holidaying in the sun will be even more enjoyable if they can get by with at least a few words and phrases of the local 'lingo'. Greater ethnic diversity has also accounted for increases in the numbers studying Asiatic languages and other tongues such as Turkish, Arabic and Chinese.

In addition to such statistics linguists and many educationalists are perturbed by the government's decision to make studying a modern foreign language at KS4 optional from September 2004. The education minister has already written to LEAs urging schools not to cut language provision at KS4 but it is already clear that up to 50% of secondaries are likely to make languages optional post 14 with some making quite drastic reductions. Whilst schools remain under a statutory requirement to offer languages at KS4 so that pupils have an entitlement to study a MFL if they so wish, they could easily threaten this entitlement and the overall balance of the curriculum if the options pattern is too restrictive. Government sources believe that Mike Tomlinson's review of 14-19 qualifications will make a special case for languages but at the same time the review is not proposing to reverse the decision to make languages optional at 14.

The English tidal wave

Is the current crisis understandable in our ever-changing world and should we be concerned by it? Above all there is no denying the ever-growing pre-eminence of the English language on the international scene. Speeches by world leaders on any topic are frequently in English as are interviews with EU commissioners and MEPs. This despite the fact that French is still supposed to be the official language of the European Union. Furthermore former Eastern bloc countries, especially the latest EU entrants, are really enthusiastic about embracing the English language. Personal experience from having set up English summer schools in Poland has shown most young people there want to get away from the traditional diet of Russian and German and believe learning English offers them more opportunities in the future for career prospects and personal prosperity. English teacher shortages are not a barrier to learning. Many young Poles spend hours each day watching Sky television and know all there is to know about premiership football and the top 40 in the pop charts.

The English language also continues to heavily permeate other tongues especially in the field of new technologies. Whilst the French continue to try and preserve the 'purity' of their language and are convinced that 'l'ordinateur' and 'le portable' are infinitely preferable to their English equivalents, the German language has succumbed very largely to Anglo-American jargon. I was amazed to be told only the other day by an experienced Austrian teacher that the verbs 'downloaden' and 'outsourcen' are now in familiar usage and conjugated like regular verbs with inseparable prefixes. The purists must be shuddering!

The Schools' perspective

Specifically within our own culture the decline in modern languages learning can be attributed to a range of factors:

*Lack of media coverage for modern languages. Foreign films tend to be televised infrequently and late at night. Few pop records with foreign lyrics ever make it into the charts. When they do the effect is dramatic. Most English teenagers immediately understand 'voulez-vous coucher avec moi?'! Interviews with foreign celebrities are invariably dubbed and the annual Eurovision Song Contest has a reputation 'all its own' with apologies to Terry Wogan!
*At secondary level pupils have sometimes begun language courses at 11 already switched off by the poor quality of teaching primary school French. There has never been a properly coordinated programme for teaching a foreign language effectively and successfully at primary level and expertise has invariably been limited. This problem is one the government is keen to tackle head on.
*Disaffection at KS4 is in my view due in large part to the fact that the GCSE course is long past its sell-by date. Whilst the introduction of authentic materials into MFL teaching was applauded by all, the thematic approach to language courses has led to much repetition with pupils complaining that they have 'done shops' up to 4 times during their secondary career and been asked to rote learn ad nauseam key phrases, many beginning with 'je voudrais/ich mochte' to satisfy the demands of often simplistic writing and oral examination demands.
*The decline in the numbers studying languages post 16 has to be related to the very obvious failure to develop a coherent programme of study from 14-19. There is a world of difference between demands made of students at GCSE level and those they are expected to achieve less than a year later at AS. Personally I think the AS/A2 exams are demanding, relevant and produce excellent standards. Sadly the numbers of students are few in most schools; demands in post 16 languages are just too great in such a short space of time and students 'vote with their feet'.
*Even in the 21st century modern languages learning is still beset by peer-group pressures. For too many secondary students, boys above all, learning French or German is their 'bete noire' and a real switch off. Languages continue to have an image problem on the curricula of many schools and this is only eradicated where the flair and commitment of outstanding practitioners wins over young hearts and minds.
*At KS4 and beyond there have never been any widely accepted alternatives to GCSE and A level. Business and vocational courses have had patchy success and kudos. This fact has tended to reinforce the misguided view that languages are essentially an 'academic' discipline and the preserve of the more able.
*The problems associated with organising home-to- home language exchanges and visits abroad generally have led to a nation-wide reduction in such activities and this has inevitably meant language learning has lost much of its gloss.
*Selling the utilitarian value of learning a foreign language is increasingly difficult as the world becomes more anglicised. Telling pupils that some knowledge of German helps you if you work in the automotive industry or medical field, trainee chefs should know some French and Estate Agents might need to know some Spanish doesn't cut much ice, 'though paradoxically more and more of the older generation are bemoaning their loss or lack of linguistic skills as they struggle with paperwork in their search for retirement homes in France, Spain and further afield in continental Europe.

Government response

The government acknowledges that languages are in crisis and is adopting a two-pronged attack in an effort to redress the balance. The 14-19-curriculum review promises new course options, varied and interchangeable pathways and a range of assessment processes to suit all ability levels. It will of course take time to get alternatives to GCSE and A-level widely accepted, especially in the commercial world, and there are significant resource implications with teacher availability and expertise at the top of the list.

The second major push is at primary level and perhaps here optimism for the chances of success is greater. Few would argue that a foreign language is most easily and effectively learnt at a very young age. A quick glance at education systems in Scandinavia and multi-lingual cultures like Switzerland clearly shows that young children can cope easily with learning more than one language at the same time. Starting a foreign language as late as 11 and when the mother tongue is already well developed is a much more difficult proposition. The new draft languages framework wants all primary pupils to spend at least one hour a week studying a foreign language and the draft KS2 programme outlines goals for each year group in the areas of oracy, literacy, knowledge about language and intercultural understanding. The framework is designed to be used with any language and 8 year-olds for example should receive enough practice in speaking and listening to enable them to "listen attentively and understand instructions, everyday classroom language and praise words". The government insists that the initiative should not be bolt-on and doesn't want schools to respond by simply creating lunchtime and after-schools clubs and nothing else.

The problem for primary schools is where to find the additional curriculum time and more importantly the necessary teacher expertise. The government has pledged £4.6 million to 19 LEAs to trial different ways of introducing modern languages and early results are encouraging. However whilst it is claimed that almost half of all Primaries are now offering language learning, twice as many as four years ago, other research indicates that 4 out of 5 LEAs believe they will not meet the government's targets for primary language learning with 2010 the deadline by which all primary schools are expected to offer their children the chance to learn languages to the same standard as other subjects.

Grounds for optimism?

'Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose'. The debate is well rehearsed and the difficulties deeply embedded. However I remain convinced, as I have always been, that if taught with flair, enthusiasm and genuine expertise, a modern foreign language can prove as enjoyable an experience and have just as successful outcomes as any other curriculum expe4rience. I do mean that for ALL ability levels. However linguists do need urgent assistance. Schools trips and exchanges must survive to give languages their natural context and both the media and the commercial world must give greater credence to the importance of language learning. Our already rich multi-cultural society will become even more tolerant and open-minded if language learning is enhanced and as a nation we would lose some of the criticisms of insularity often hurled at us by our European neighbours. We need to be like Voltaire's Candide and remain optimistic about the future of language learning irrespective of pitfalls, disasters and setbacks. Let's dig the garden and get on with the job.

Contact Sandy Twinning Association:

Chairman: Max Hill
21 The Green
SG19 1PE
Telephone: 01767 681469

This article was originally published by About my Area SG19

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