[lg policy] UK: Should British pupils give up studying French?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon Aug 30 15:54:27 UTC 2010

Should British pupils give up studying French?
By Will Smale BBC News

Savez-vous que vous parlez très mal français?

If your answer to the above question (do you know you speak very poor
French?) - was a resounding "you what?" then you are not alone.

    Students realise that even if they do get a GCSE in French, they
still won't be able to speak the language”

End Quote Paul Noble Language learning expert

But while British people have always had a reputation for our
inability to speak foreign languages, French has historically been the
one that most of us can at least say a few words in, thanks to having
had to learn it at school. For many adults, distant memories of
begrudgingly attending French classes at the local comprehensive have
left us equipped to do complicated and stressful things, such as
buying a loaf of bread while on holiday in France. Although possibly
only with the help of some judicious pointing, while desperately
hoping that the shopkeeper doesn't ask us a question in return.

Yet with the latest GCSE results showing that the number of pupils
studying French has dropped 45% in eight years, the average Briton's
grasp of the language may be falling even further. But why are fewer
students choosing to take French? And no offence to the likes of
Charles De Gaulle, Asterix and the Michelin Man, but does it really
matter? For language learning expert Paul Noble, who teaches French
and Spanish on CDs by Collins, the reasons for the decline are

Fall in French

    * In 2002, 341,604 pupils in England and Wales took GCSE French
(3.3% of all GCSEs)
    * In 2010, it was 188,688, down 45%
    * Over the same period, number of A levels in French fell by 14%

Firstly, he points to the decision of the then Labour government in
2004 to make it no longer compulsory for schools in England to teach a
foreign language to 14 to 16 year olds. "That decision certainly
didn't help," says Mr Noble who is also fluent in Italian, German, and
Mandarin, and runs his own language school.  "But the core reason is
because pupils know French is difficult to pass, and difficult to get
something out of it. "On the first point, with French or any language,
you either know how to say it or you don't - you can perhaps be a bit
more vague with subjects like religious studies.

"On the later point, what I mean is that students realise that even if
they do get a GCSE in French, they still won't be able to speak the
language. "Even students who come out of doing French A-levels can be
surprised at what they can't say - the teaching should be far more
conversationally based." The National Union of Teachers (NUT) also
blames the decline on the end of a compulsory language at GCSE. Its
head of education John Bangs says: "The policy drift on modern foreign
languages is unforgivable." It means more young people are
ill-equipped for life in a global society, he adds.

The sudden decline in French-speaking could mark the end of a
long-held attachment the British have felt to the language. For nearly
400 years when the country was ruled by Norman kings, it was the
language of the ruling class, says Jonnie Robinson, co-curator of a
forthcoming exhibition, Evolving English, at the British Library in
London. So the nobility spoke French, like everyone at the royal
palaces and in the judiciary.

"After the Norman Conquest [in 1066], Norman French became the
language of power, although English remained the language of the
people. And official documents were written either in Latin, the
language of the church, or in French."
French bread on sale Take a deep breath, smile and point

There is evidence that its grip on power had loosened a little by
1362, when the opening of Parliament was conducted in English for the
first time since 1066, says Mr Robinson. And the Library has a
document dating to 1419, written in English by King Henry V, who was
fighting a prolonged war with the French and was probably making a
statement about English nationality. In the centuries that followed,
French travelled around the world as a colonial language, he says, and
played a key part in the founding of the United Nations, the Olympic
movement and the European Common Market, hence its status, alongside
English, as the language of diplomacy.

For a monolingual country like England (there are generations of
bilingual families in Wales, for example), says Mr Robinson, people
were impressed to see Tony Blair speaking French in Paris when prime
minister, and more recently hear Nick Clegg speaking French, Spanish
or Dutch.  But despite the prowess of the deputy prime minister, a
spokesman for the Department for Education said the coalition
government currently has no plans to make languages compulsory again
for 14 to 16 year olds in England.

If not French...

    * Spanish (up 16% among GCSE-takers since 2002) is widely spoken
and increasingly in the US
    * Mandarin (up 38%) is popular among those with ambitions in business
    * German historically had an image problem but is the language of
the EU's largest economy

So is this putting UK companies at a competitive disadvantage? English
may be described as the world's business language, but 200 million
people speak French around the world, and it is an official language
in 32 countries. Russell Lawson, public affairs manager at the
Federation of Small Businesses, says giving school children a solid
grasp of French has always helped them go on and learn other
languages. He adds: "English may be the world's predominant business
language, but if you can speak just some of another language, it can
be a great help. It's a cultural acknowledgement that you are at least
trying to engage with the customer on their terms, and that can reap
business rewards."

Madonna's daughter Lourdes attended a French school in London and is
bilingual For the right-wing think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, the
decline in the number of students learning French all boils down to
the school league tables - languages are hard, so pupils are
encouraged to take "easier" subjects. This is a point echoed by Michel
Monsauret, attache for education at the French Embassy in London, who
says that subjects perceived to be easier, such as religious studies,
are on the increase.

"What I would say, is that languages are taught more extensively at
private schools in the UK, and their pupils go on to dominate places
at Oxbridge and the other best universities." There is a lot at stake
for the UK economy, he adds. "If you go to the City [of London] you
will find that many top ranking bankers are French - UK firms always
resort to foreigners when dealing with the outside world." But if
getting more British pupils to study French and other foreign
languages is important, where do you start? Paul Noble thinks it is
very simple.

"You have got to make French classes more enjoyable," he says. "French
needn't be hard to learn if taught correctly, it can even be fun.
"Start by teaching children how to converse in French in any given
situation, help them better express themselves in French, and it
becomes a lot more enjoyable."



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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