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.

Language class problem solved

We’ve worked out which language class to go to. Sarah’s going to go to French level 3, I’m going to go on Spanish level 1. That way Sarah will be able to get her French up to the level of fluency she’d like, I can get my Spanish up to the same level as Sarah’s and next year, we’ll be able to do Spanish level 2 together.

For some reason, Italian just doesn’t appeal. German was on the wrong day and the others had a ceiling that was too low. Plus this way we don’t get too competitive too early.

Pick a language, any language

So Sarah and I are thinking of signing up for language classes at City University in the Autumn. There’s a choice, but the trouble is matching it to our levels of ability.

Now I did two language GCSEs – French (eight years’ study) and German (three years’ study) – getting on for 20 years ago. I’ve had to use German in my work, French to a lesser extent. I’ve also learnt some Greek, Spanish, Italian and Japanese, but only at a very functional level

Sarah, however, has A-levels in Russian, French, German and Spanish. Her Spanish is much better than mine; her French is better than mine; her German is about the same as mine, maybe not quite as good.

Here are our choices for languages to learn:

  • French (all levels),
  • Spanish (all levels),
  • Arabic (level one only),
  • German (level two and three),
  • Italian (level one, two and three) and
  • Japanese.

Level two means “rusty GCSE” or better. Level three means “rusty A-level” or better.

So which should we pick?

  • German’s on a bad day for both us, but would probably be the most useful for me, since I’m frequently dealing with German companies and we’d both enjoy getting ourselves properly fluent again
  • French is interesting but we’d essentially be attending different classes for that, which defeats the point of learning a language together.
  • Ditto Spanish (no hablo Espa?ɬ�ol mui bien).
  • Japanese would be utterly useless for us both but would be interesting
  • Arabic would be interesting, but we’d have to stop after a year
  • Italian would be fun and potentially useful since we might actually go on holiday to Italy again. But I’ve already done a few lessons, so I’d be at a very slight advantage.

It’s looking like Italian at that moment, with German the main contender. Anyone recommend a different choice?