The languages debate rages on

Posted: August 31, 2010 in Education
Tags: , , , , ,

Why aren’t kids taking language GCSEs? Panic, panic! And most of the people I’ve read stuff by about the issue don’t seem to have been in a languages classroom for years.

I didn’t do any languages bar foundation Welsh to GCSE, so I guess I can’t talk much either. But I did do French to year nine, and quit with relief. Why? It was boring and felt useless.

Doing all the languages I’ve done in school has involved learning sentences by rote and constructing stilted conversations on paper that we then learned by rote and recited. We got fun little booklets in Welsh with lots of zany cartoons and ‘sentence starters’ and ‘insert-your-name-here’ example paragraphs. In French it was much the same, but without the zany little booklets and with zany little textbooks that were more of the same. We were discouraged from using language not from the zany little books.

We didn’t know how to construct a sentence, just how to substitute words into it. We didn’t know how to vary the wording of what we were saying or understand someone else. We didn’t know how to cope with unscripted conversation. We didn’t know how to alter tenses (at least not until a week before the Welsh exam or something ridiculous like that, and even then it was sketchy).

That’s not learning a language. Learning a language is learning vocabulary, how to fit that vocabulary together, how to talk, how to get your point across, how to follow unfamiliar texts and speech, how to get an accent that native speakers understand.

My mother can remember a time when you did your courses, you wrote essays in the language, you read works in the language, you talked in the language, and then you went into your oral exam with no idea what the examiner was going to say to you. It may not have been perfect, but when, as part of her O level course, she went to France, she could speak French well enough to get by with her host family. That’s learning a language.

If I tried to have a conversation in Welsh, having passed (just!) a Welsh as a second language GCSE, I would fail unless the person I was talking to by some miracle used the same wording as my Welsh exams and teacher. That’s not going to happen. Ever. My Welsh teacher once asked me, as a continuation of a scripted conversation about a musician I’m fond of, whether he was young or old. I didn’t even know what she was saying. I’d never encountered the words before, and certainly not in that wording.

That’s not being able to speak a language, even as a second language. I’m not claiming to be able to.

From what I’ve heard from friends who’ve done them, GCSE Spanish, French and German were exactly like that. It’s just not learning a language. No wonder uptake rates are going down.

So the answer? Teach how to speak, write, read and understand the language. Not ‘certain parts of the language.’ And that, my friends, in today’s exam-outcome focussed environment, is something the exam boards could change.

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