UK: Language handicap

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Mar 13 13:46:04 UTC 2007

>>From The TimesMarch 13, 2007

Language Handicap

Schools let down their children when they let them off languages
When Lord Dearing was asked last October urgently to review language
teaching in English secondary schools, his core task was to assess the
consequences of the Governments decision, in force since September 2004,
to allow pupils to drop foreign languages after the age of 14. Alan
Johnson, the Education Secretary, was explicit: If Lord Dearing says this
strategy is wrong and we should go into reverse, we will listen to that
advice and we will do that.

On the evidence before him, it was Lord Dearings duty to convict. Across
the state sector, language learning has not so much declined as been
abandoned, with fewer than half of all pupils continuing even as far as
GCSE or equivalent. Those teachers who have not taken early retirement
have seen their careers wither. No one in their right mind would now seek
a career in language teaching. To Labours shame, the policy is
accentuating class and income divisions: the poorer the area, and the
further north, the more monoglot the school is likely to be. Independent
schools, by contrast, continue to compel pupils to persevere with
languages as essential skills.

The case for reversing this disastrous policy forthwith, before secondary
schools lose what is left of their language skills base, would seem
unanswerable, and it is regrettable that Lord Dearing has not seized the
moment. Instead, he has advanced a number of proposals designed to effect
a renaissance in language teaching within two years. He does, however,
recommend that the Government should announce now that unless the decline
in takeup is reversed rapidly, languages will be returned to the statutory
curriculum. That commitment should be made swiftly.

Lord Dearings reasoning appears to be that choice versus compulsion is not
the main issue, and that successful formulation of a strategy for language
teaching needs to ask why secondary school pupils head for the exit, given
the chance. He implies that the battle to engage their minds and
imaginations has been lost  and that this may be because the teaching of
foreign languages not only offers too little, but starts too late.

A policy that looks only at language teaching after age 14 is thus, he
argues, unlikely to succeed. The reports enthusiasm for primary school
language teaching is its strongest and most imaginative aspect. As Lord
Dearing points out, primary school takeup of language teaching for four to
seven-year-olds has soared in the past five years, rising to more than 70
per cent; and right across the range of ability and background, children
are taking to languages like ducks to water. This no more than echoes the
old truth: the younger you start with languages, the better. It would be
sensible to start earlier still, at 5 or even in kindergarten, as the
Dutch and other linguistically skilled nations do. Infant language
teaching should not be seen as an optional extra.

Lord Dearing recommends that the primary school range of languages on
offer should be widened, and language teaching integrated into the Key
Stage 2 curriculum by 2010. It is an excellent idea; early acquaintance
could do more than anything else to overcome teenage unease with foreign
tongues. Once they know enough to explore further on computers, the world
is potentially their oyster. The fact remains that few learn well what
they do not need. Universities should restore languages as an admission
criterion. More employers should demand language skills. But in the end,
the Government will have to retreat. Languages belong on the curriculum.

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