UK: Communicating the role of modern languages

Anthea Fraser Gupta A.F.Gupta at
Wed Aug 30 13:53:41 UTC 2006

The Guardian, 29 August 2006

Communicating the role of languages 

Tuesday August 29, 2006
The Guardian 

The "crisis" facing modern languages in the curriculum is not unexpected (Tongue-tied, August 26). It was foreseen some years ago by the Nuffield languages inquiry. Many of its recommendations have not been put into action.
But how do we move forward? Simply trying to teach French to everybody from age seven is not a solution. Alternative ways forward are being trialled. Funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Association of School and College Leaders is running a project in which primary school pupils are given an opportunity to experience several languages for a term at a time. The languages are taught, or in many cases co-learned, by the class teacher, supported by materials which include videos and native-speaker recordings. The languages in this particular project are German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Punjabi and Latin (no native speakers available but the book used has been extremely popular).

The important aspect of the project is that the aim of the learning is not just to get a smattering of a few languages but to develop language awareness - ie an understanding of how languages work, how they inter-relate, how human beings communicate in a multilingual world. We want to give pupils an enthusiasm for language learning, training in listening carefully and a knowledge of language structure. The pupils involved in this project will be starting secondary school next week. The University of Manchester has been evaluating their work over the past two years and their interest in languages. The early signs are promising.
Peter Downes
Project director, Language Awareness in Primary Schools, Association of School and College Leaders

You may feel that the government's decision to "sideline foreign languages at GCSE" was "misguided" (Leader, August 25), but I am very comfortable with making languages optional at key stage 4. Positive choice and high quality, over compulsion and quantity, is the winner here. We need to encourage pupils to take languages, not force them. At my school, languages, although small in take-up, are on the up and I have observed some highly successful and popular schemes in other schools. As for the primaries, we are working closely with them and our partner secondary schools to provide the consistency we can build upon.
Ken Hall 
Headteacher, Spennymoor School

Not just a time zone, but a full-blown time warp seems to separate Britain from the rest of Europe. My experience has shown that those British who take languages seriously recognise both the pleasure and expansion of horizons that other cultures offer; it's just that their number is relatively small and no doubt dwindling.

One needn't be a conspiracy theorist to suspect the issue is more sinister than merely assuming British laziness or even of haughtiness towards other cultures. Is this an incredible government manipulation of its citizens to become increasingly monolingual so that other nations must play on a more "level", ie English-speaking playing field? If so, then this approach can only backfire, as the economic argument also includes the business advantages of understanding other cultures. Why can the government not be courageous enough to invest in the short-, mid- and long-term cultural education of the nation? This is not merely a question of setting financial priorities; it is one of absolutely breathtaking ignorance.
Leonard Olschner
Centenary professor of German and comparative literature, Queen Mary, University of London

I notice an attitude among students today that languages are taken less seriously than other subjects by employers. A language is therefore often chosen as a "contrast subject" for GCSE and A-levels rather than being a specialism. The "languages lead nowhere" outlook needs to be addressed by teachers, university admissions tutors and the government; people need to connect languages with a future career. While it is sad that fewer and fewer people seem to enjoy languages for their own sake, we need to see the direct benefits for ourselves and our future lives.

Laura Lee-Rodgers
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Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)
School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT <>
NB: Reply to a.f.gupta at
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