I read with interest Richard Garner's piece Britain's top pupils are shunning language GCSEs (Tuesday, 30 June 2009, Independent online)
I work for a private language training company, and over the last couple of years we’ve seen a massive increase in the numbers of people attending our once-a-week evening courses. I think this possibly reflects splicedfly and daveycooper’s comments that suggest if you have a good reason for learning a language – you live over there, have a Spanish granny, you want to travel and integrate, then you’ll do it. The 12 000 or so people we train every year clear have a motivation which they can now see much more clearly than they could when they were at school.
And yes, language learning at school can sometimes seem pointless, and the seemingly insurmountable complexity of the task ahead when you’re a teenager can clearly make them think, oh, why bother? But at the end of the day there is a big old world out there, full of people who really do respect and treat you differently when you speak even a handful of words of their language. The question remains of course, when is it best to learn that language?
I confess to having found language completely fascinating in school for some reason and I persisted through those (then) O-level classes whilst my 20-odd disinterested moron classmates buffooned around. I was clearly in the minority (probably a Billy-no-mates), and I sense still that it’s just really hard for GCSE pupils to see the need to learn the language. Dr Cooper speaks from that comfortable position of being able to express the “they should all speak English (and we should all shout and speak slowly!) opinion” because in fact he does speak languages and had made the effort, but I do hear the “every speaks English” line an awful lot.
We know the Dutch, Scandinavians, and other countries whose languages are not widely spoken or taught abroad, are naturally more influenced by English from an early age, and have to make that effort to speak it. The influx of foreign film and music is such that young people clearly see that need at a time which corresponds to them learning the language at school.
Ironically too, foreign languages are now flooding through the curriculum at Key Stage 2 where I understand they will be compulsory from 2010 – or has that been reversed too? So I’d tend to point the finger at the national curriculum, and government planning of language provision in general, for an example of utterly not-joined-up thinking.
I do agree that if all you are ever planning to do is trot out a few lines to break the ice in a Paris bar, or get a taxi to Las Ramblas, then it does seem a waste of time to suffer 3-5 years of language imprisonment in a class of unmotivated fellow pupils, when you can accumulate the same lingo from a phrase book, or an evening course later in life.
I’ve banged on about the whole Empire thing before, but I think it has definitely embedded in our culture this notion that we no longer need to bother. I suppose by the time that we realise we really ought to be speaking Mandarin, Russian, Hindi, etc. to communicate with the people who own Britain in a few years’ time, it’ll probably be a bit late. But I think it’s going to take that sort of external, absolute obligation and a desperate economic need before the masses return to language learning in school, and our jobs and futures depend on not just “two beers please”, but a high level of language fluency.