Ever since Year 7, when I walked into secondary school as a fresh-faced 11 year old, I managed to get the knack for learning foreign languages. It just seemed to click for me. Vocabulary and verb structures all just seemed to make sense – on my last day of Year 7 my French teacher gave me the weight of expectation by saying that ‘this is a potential A Level option for you, Mike.’
Talk about adding a bit of fuel to the fire.
Of course, that was at a simple time when the idea was to get a knack for introductions and how to hold a basic conversation. For an 11/12 year old, this probably was no bad thing. However, as you get older, stick with the subject for longer… you begin to realise that the whole system is flawed and, when it comes to the crunch, you feel a little bit deflated.
I have learnt French now for coming on ten years – 9 of those have been sat in a classroom. However, now I’m here in Grenoble on a year-long Erasmus placement I find myself increasingly frustrated at what’s happening in our classrooms, regardless of the level. It’s left me largely unprepared for the real world.
So what exactly is the problem?
First and foremost, I think the initial problem starts with the fact that many schools make this compulsory. International relations and communities with similar language skills are important, but it isn’t for everyone. Ultimately you end up with 2/3rds of a class really not caring about the latest verb structure.
Even when it came to the optional GCSE stage, where things were a little more relaxed on what you did, my school really made people feel uncomfortable if they didn’t want to but were reasonably bright. That kind of pressure was really rough on some people. I can remember the presentation we had in Year 9 about languages and so on… meant absolutely nothing compared to the pressure of your teacher.
The second problem that I feel is out there has got to be that the topics aren’t practical OK, so when you start, little pieces of information about school life are good but when this continues into GCSE I do question the point. GCSE is meant to provide a framework for more advanced things and speaking about things that aren’t useful in the real world doesn’t get anyone anywhere. The solution is to build on different topics concerning what the language is aimed to be used for… Business, conversational-type work and holidays.
Thanks to this use of aimless chitchat about your school subjects and pencil case, it’s difficult to really find the step to A Level manageable. All of a sudden you’re expected to talk about some of life’s more sensitive subjects without the confidence to because of the impractical framework you got given.
The problem continued for me at university, which was just a re-cap of everything from the last four years… OK, so the grammar went up a notch but ultimately I never felt confident actually moving to France. Of course, I’m here now and it’s like starting again.
The next real problem is that the pace of the language never changes in school – it all goes at one speed to make sure you understand what’s being said. OK, that’s fine, but at some point you have to consider that other languages speak an awful lot faster.
This, you could argue, comes down to the fact that, of the ten years I’ve been learning French, only in three of them have I actually had a teacher who was French. The rest were English.
Of course, I can’t criticise them too much, but the accent and pace are so different that all of a sudden you realise that you have been given a much easier route through school. The lack of a language assistant for many years didn’t help matters. Perhaps more and more people need to be encouraged to be an assistant in a foreign country – it could be the saviour of listening skills.
The final major flaw is the obsession with writing essays and reading books. That’s all very well, but there is a focus there on the perfect grammar. In reality, I have found that the practice is somewhat different from the theory, with different phrases and expressions flying all over the place in real French conversation – many of these would have been frowned upon as part of my lessons simply because grammatically… it was a bit off.
Ultimately being out here has been massively useful for me, but it has exposed some shortcomings in what I’ve learnt. Ultimately there has to be a bigger emphasis on speaking and having someone French there to go through the finer points. There has to be more practical information in the material too, with a focus on the sort of thing people are likely to use their skills for, not just anything that seems to almost patronise the beginners. We, for instance, learn a language for a holiday using topics about hotels and car hire. Why not something like that for modern languages.
I also did German at GCSE and would later do a Spanish GCSE too. I can confirm to you that all the particular exam board did was pump out the same sort of thing for each subject.
Languages are meant to be fun, inspiring! They’re meant to engage us with the rest of the world and bring us all closer together. One thing that they shouldn’t be for is to be another part of exam factories, where the true meaning is lost.
It’s sad to see language take-up dropping like a sinking stone, the rest of Europe characterising us Brits as ignorant…. But ultimately it’s equally the attitude of the people who create the courses as it is the people who turn them down to do something else.