What’s wrong with our language teaching?

So the British are rubbish at languages, that much we know. What’s the problem, though? Why are we rubbish? I don’t know, but I have a few ideas.

The British Academy thinks bringing back compulsory language GCSEs is a good idea.

Onora O’Neill, President of the British Academy, said that “A prompt return to mandatory study of foreign languages at GCSE is crucial, since otherwise schools will not have the complement of staff to teach any languages to a reasonable standard.”

The Academy also believes that longer-term measures are needed to incentivise foreign language study and to improve teaching and learning opportunities. Robin Jackson, the Academy’s Chief Executive, added that ‘The decline in school level language learning results in damage to language-based degree study and also to the many other university subjects that involve linguistic skills, with further malign effects upon the standard of UK research in these fields“.

Hmm, actually teaching children languages might help them to speak languages? Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before? Silly government.

But I have a question. We all know that the Dutch, some of our closest neighbours and fellow speakers of a West Germanic language, are incredibly multilingual, speaking English, French, German and Dutch fluently almost to a man (or woman). Now, there are probably plenty of reasons for this, including easy access to foreign language TV stations, thanks to signal leakage from neighbouring countries and cable TV, and a healthy number of people to speak those languages with.

All the same, I can’t help but wonder this: why don’t we just send a fact finding team over to The Netherlands, find out how they teach languages there, and just do that here – rip out our entire language-teaching system and use theirs instead?

It’s just an idea.

3 Replies to “What’s wrong with our language teaching?”

  1. You think you’ve got problems – check out the Press Gazette website! Tragic. Who is going to watch the watchmen now?

  2. The Media Guardian and the Independent. I don’t think Press Gazette really investigated the press, merely reported about it – or at least, not in the time I was reading it.

  3. The British Academy’s correct – making languages optional did enormous damage to language-learning in the UK. But let’s face it, language teaching wasn’t up to much even before then.
    That leads me to why you’re also right: a trip to the Netherlands, or indeed Scandinavia (I lived in Sweden for a couple of years, where I became fluent in Swedish to add to Spanish and French) is enlightening.
    Kids in those countries enjoy learning foreign languages because they have a reason to learn; be it telly, Hollywood or making new friends.
    If you find a compelling way of making kids (or adults) want to learn a language AND you make it fun, you’ll start to see results. Hardly the case when I was being forced to learn French verb tables at school.

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