Language crisis facing UK schools

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Dec 4 16:48:47 UTC 2006

Forwarded from edling at

Language crisis facing UK schools

Ahead of a major report on how government policy wrecked foreign language
teaching, academics demand new start for millions of children

Anushka Asthana, education correspondent
Sunday December 03 2006
The Observer

Teenagers at a school in Manchester were overjoyed when they were told
they could drop French this year. Out of 100 pupils just 15 signed up for
the GCSE. So few showed an interest in German that the school decided not
to offer it at all. Grace Hallows and her friend Sam Mottershed were among
the handful who carried on. 'My Dad said he really regretted not listening
in French lessons when he was at school,' said Grace, 14. 'He said it
would look good on my CV and be useful for skiing.' Many of their
classmates were put off foreign languages because they were 'less fun'
than other lessons like PE or art, added Sam, 15: 'Languages are hard. If
we were given a choice as to whether or not we took maths I am sure a lot
of people would drop that too.'

Language teaching in England and Wales is in crisis. Fifty leading
academics have written to The Observer this weekend to express alarm about
the slump in the number of teenagers taking GCSEs in foreign languages. A
letter signed by professors and heads of language departments from dozens
of top universities, including Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of
Economics (LSE), calls for the government to reverse its controversial
policy allowing pupils to drop languages at 14. The move, that came into
force two years ago, embedded the notion that 'languages do not matter,
that English is enough', the letter says. University College London is so
concerned by the lack of language ability among pupils that it is
considering making a language qualification at 16 compulsory for all

The government 'decision was absolutely crazy', said Helen
Watanabe-O'Kelly, professor of German literature at the University of
Oxford and one of the signatories. 'At the time that other European
countries are introducing two languages in schools we are told our
children don't need them.' It also bred elitism, she added, because state
schools cut back on languages while independent schools added new options,
such as Japanese and Chinese. Clarissa Farr, head of St Paul's Girls'
school, a leading private school, said the decision was 'benighted'. Along
with academics, teachers and campaigners, Farr is hoping that Lord
Dearing, who will publish the interim findings of his inquiry into
languages in schools next week, may signal a government U-turn.

Nick Byrne, director of the LSE Language Centre and lead signatory of
today's letter, said reversing the decision would show that learning a
language was a core skill like English and maths: 'Compulsion may not
generate hundreds of linguists but it is symbolic. It is about what we
want a rounded person to be.' One thing is clear: the UK has a shameful
record on foreign languages and there has been a dramatic fall in the
numbers studying them. This month, a report concluded that the subjects
were fast becoming the preserve of the middle classes. Nearly a third of
schools had less than 25 per cent of pupils studying a foreign language
after 14, the study by the National Centre for Languages (CiLT) found. The
poorest teenagers were least likely to be learning a language, it added.
The figures raised fears that a generation of monolingual youngsters would
struggle to compete in a global job market. Out of the 25 European Union
countries the UK only beats Hungary in the proportion of its citizens able
to have a conversation in a second language. A study by the European
Commission showed that 30 per cent of people in the UK were able to do
this, compared to 91 per cent in the Netherlands, 88 per cent in Denmark,
62 per cent in Germany and 45 per cent in France.

The architect of the government reforms said it was the poor record in
languages that led to the decision to let 14-year-olds to drop the
subject, leaving money to spend on far younger children. Baroness Estelle
Morris, former education secretary, said it would be a 'tragedy if the
government was frightened' into reversing a decision that handed power
from Whitehall to headteachers. 'We are lousy at foreign languages and
shouldn't be,' said Morris. 'So you have to do something different. You
need to decide where you invest the effort, energy and enthusiasm. Not on
15-year-olds who do not want to do it but five to 11-year-olds.' There was
not the money to cover both, so primary school children should face
compulsion, she said. 'Foreign languages give economic and cultural
value,' said Mike Harris, head of education and skills at the Institute of
Directors. 'But from our members perspective the argument relating to
economic value is overblown.  They do not see languages as the main skills

However, the most powerful academic board at University College London
will next week vote on proposals that would require every applicant to
have a qualification in a foreign language at 16. Michael Worton, chair of
the board and professor of French language and literature, said he hoped
to 'aspire' rather than force pupils to keep up languages. Worton, an
advisor to Dearing, said he had once been convinced by forcing pupils to
do a GCSE but now thought other methods could remedy the problem. Schools
wanting to place children in top universities would have to offer
languages, he added.

When Dearing sets out his early conclusions late next week he is likely to
call for new ways to enthuse young people. Experts claim that GCSEs and
A-levels are boring, requiring teenagers to talk about their day at school
or directions to the train station. Dearing said he will aim to 'identify
the fundamental reasons why languages dropped so sharply in Key Stage 4'
and find ways to ensure that courses are 'engaging for teenagers and
recognises their different aspirations and interests'. He is also likely
to look at provision in primary school where Morris's plans are starting
to take effect. Hilary Beynon, a language teacher from Newport, South
Wales, usually has A-level students but now runs an after-school class
four days a week where children sing and do role plays in Spanish. 'The
way in which they absorb language is amazing,' she said.

While most people welcome efforts with younger children they say there is
a 'lost generation' who did not learn languages early on and will drop
them at 14. 'You did not need to be able to predict the future to know
this would happen,' said Linda Parker, director of the Association of
Language Learning.

How others do it

Germany: English has been compulsory for all secondary pupils since the
end of the Sixties. Most federal states offer a foreign language at
primary level, usually at the age of eight, although some schools offer it
earlier. Chinese, Japanese and Czech is also taught in some schools.

Sweden: English is the first foreign language and is compulsory for all
children. In the late Sixties, English was introduced at the age of nine
or 10. A new national curriculum in 1995 resulted in many learning it from
seven or eight. A second compulsory language is introduced at the age of
11 or 12, from a choice of German, French Spanish. A third language is
optional two years later.

USA: The United States has no official policy. Responsibility for
schooling rests with states and not the national government. The majority
of states have secondary school foreign language programmes. Spanish
instruction has increased, as well as Japanese and Russian.Isabelle


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list