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.

Economists: always surprising

I’m always surprised by economists and the things they come up with. If you’ve ever read Freakanomics, you’ll be aware of the exciting trends they can uncover (abortion as the cause of reduced crime in the US, etc).

But they can also devise some extremely clever ways of encouraging certain behaviours and discouraging others. Take carbon trading: it’s worth billions already and is encouraging industry to become greener using the motivation of large profits for those who are environmentally friendly. Carbon taxes, currently being argued about by all the main UK political parties, are a way of discouraging environmentally unfriendly behaviour.

The most clever green proposal I’ve seen is to discourage electricity suppliers from charging per kilowatt, but instead to provide a warm, well-lit house as a service, to be delivered in whatever way the supplier deems necessary:

“People aren’t fussed about how much power they buy,” explains Philip Sellwood, chief executive of the trust. “If energy suppliers sold a service – a lit and heated house, rather than units of gas or electricity – then they would face incentives to provide it as efficiently as possible.” In theory, such companies would even pay to improve their customers’ homes, cutting their own costs in the process. One is already operating in Woking, a green-minded town; another is planned to start in London.

See? That’s clever.

This man got elected

It’s scary to think Lynn Westmoreland got elected to Congress. This isn’t random politician-bashing on my part. I have video evidence. Among other things – and believe me, the list of problems will grow in your mind as you watch this – he wants to display the Ten Commandments (ah, but which set?) in the House and the Senate. It would help if he knew what they were…

I’ve let my Salon Premium membership lapse

Salon, everyone’s favourite whiny liberal American news and comment outlet, has an interesting scheme. Pay $30 (or something similar) and you get to read all the articles without adverts. Don’t pay the cash and you only get to read the intros to the articles – except if you click on a logo and watch an ad, in which case you can read every article on the site for free that day.

I’ve let my Premium membership, as it’s called, lapse. The trouble is there just aren’t enough good articles on the site anymore for me to bother paying the money. The ads really aren’t that irritating and if all I have to do is click a logo once a week or so, then I’m not that fussed.

Premium does offer other benefits, including access to the Table Talk chat room (like I need to pay to have arguments on the Internet) and various free magazine subscriptions. The trouble is you have to have a US postal address for 90% of those subscriptions. Not much use for me.

Salon did have a survey a while back, in which I pointed out these shortcomings. When my membership was about to expire, I got an email begging me to stay and giving me two free offers – valid only if I had a US postal address. Clearly, they weren’t listening.

Anyway, I’ll just stick to Slate and Greg Palast for my diversionary political reading for now. When I fancy a laugh, I’ll read Spiked. Good job that’s free, mind.

Incidentally, what do you think of the Slate redesign? I hate it myself. I can’t find anything on the front page anymore. Thank heavens for RSS feeds.

Where are the teachers going to come from, Gordon?

Following on from my little rant about Gordon Brown’s new plan to force immigrants to learn English, this particular item of news from Private Eye came to my attention today:

“Since November, immigrants wanting to take the UK’s citizenship tests must be able to demonstrate an ‘acceptable degree’ of skill in the English language. But how are people supposed to learn it?

”An interim report from a study by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has uncovered ‘enormous problems’ with the availability of English classes for speakers of other languages (ESOL). As demand for the classes has risen (by 65 percent in the past two years), little has been done to boost the number of courses and there is a national shortage of qualified ESOL teachers.

“Many areas have long waiting lists for courses and the inspectorates looking after colleges and adult education services say ESOL is ‘probably the weakest curriculum area’ in the whole learning and skills sector.”

So not only has Gordon come up with a policy that is really just an extension of an existing one, albeit a stupid extension that couldn’t possibly work in practice (how exactly are unemployed immigrants going to be able to afford these English lessons? etc, etc), he’s overlooked the fact that there’s no one to actually teach English anyway. Assuming this isn’t pointless posturing to attract the Daily Mail vote but which he’s never going to actually implement.

It’s his hands on the economy, folks, and soon he’ll be looking after the whole country…

Force immigrants to learn English?

The Beeb is reporting that everyone’s favourite potential PM, Gordon Brown, is trying to win the “psychotically racist” vote by suggesting that not only should all potential immigrants to the UK have to learn English, if they refuse, we should force them to learn it.

Wow. Whose exact benefit is that for? The immigrants? Could be, but why force them if it is? They’ll do it of their own volition, surely.

If it isn’t, who wins from this plan? TEFL teachers and precious few others, that’s who? And how do you force people to learn a language?

“You! What’s that called? Tell me… No? It’s a ”loaf of bread“. Are you going to remember that? Are you? If you don’t get 100 out of 100 on your next vocab quiz, I’m going to send you back to where you came from! Now here are your flashcards.”


But here’s a question: why are we stopping with immigrants to Britain and English? How about people who relocate to other parts of Britain? Should we make Glaswegians who move to the home counties practice a slightly posher accent to make them more intelligible to the sheltered shire classes? Should we force surfers who move down to Newquay to learn Cornish? How about anyone who buys a holiday home in North West Wales being forced to learn Welsh? And let’s not get started on forcing the Northern Irish to learn Gaelic…