Dani Garavelli: Language policy sure to be lost in translation
EVERY couple of weeks I have the same row with my eldest son. As he sighs theatrically over his French homework, I burble on about the merits of being able to converse with people from other countries.
Glib phrases such as “widening your cultural horizons” and “improving your career prospects” trip off my tongue. Then, while telling me for the umpteenth time he finds it boring and has no intention of taking it to Higher, he slips in a few glib assertions of his own. “What’s the point in learning a foreign language when everyone else in the world can speak English?” he says, mainly because he knows it is guaranteed to have me banging my head off the table.
This is not some teenage stoner I’m talking about. This is a boy who can tell you exactly what’s happening in Syria on any given day and is constantly planning trips to countries he hopes to visit in his gap year. So why on Earth isn’t he interested in learning how to talk to the people he might encounter along the way?
From speaking to other parents, I know he’s not alone. The distaste for foreign languages seems almost endemic in Scottish secondary schools, particularly among boys, for whom verbal communication of any sort is a chore and who are able – both at home and abroad – to get by on the international language of football.
Now it transpires the SNP shares my exasperation. Alex Salmond’s vision is for an independent Scotland looking outwards towards Europe, yet he’s faced with a linguistic insularity that is impacting on the country’s success. Our young people’s lack of language skills is making them less employable, and costing the economy more than £590 million, he claims. And things are getting worse, with the number of pupils taking French, Italian or German to Higher dropping by 4 per cent last year.
Unfortunately, learning minister Alasdair Allan’s plan to tackle this problem seems as headbangingly unrealistic as my son’s attitude to international relations. At a time when some schools can barely afford to buy in supplies of paper towels, he claims that within the decade pupils in Scotland’s primary schools will be learning not one but two foreign languages.
It’s not hard to see where he’s coming from. Immersion in a foreign language at a young age gives you an advantage, as I should know. Packed off to Italian classes every Saturday morning of my young life, I missed out on Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, but I can still converse – after a fashion – with my cousins. Yet when you consider the number of language assistants in Scottish schools has fallen from 284 in 2005 to just 59, how can the government possibly commit the kind of investment (an estimated £8m-£12m) that would make its plan feasible?
It isn’t just about cost either, it’s about time. Teachers are already struggling to cope with the vast array of topics they are supposed to cover. Unless the SNP is proposing to extend the school day, the extra language lessons are going to impact on the existing curriculum. And what about schools with a large proportion of pupils whose first language is not English? Haven’t they got enough to contend with trying to make sure these children can keep up with their peers, without adding two more languages into the mix?
The whole idea would be more convincing if teaching one foreign language in primary had proved an overwhelming success. In my younger children’s school, they are taught French from P1, but it’s pretty piecemeal. Mostly it seems to involve learning colours, animals and parts of the body whenever teachers can squeeze it in, which is commendable, but when experts say younger children absorb languages easily, they probably have to hear it spoken more than once a fortnight.
In an ideal world, I guess, foreign languages would be incorporated into the daily schedule, but, if the government had money to spare I’d rather it was spent on teaching more youngsters to play an instrument (which is also supposed to help improve linguistic abilities). Or even better, schools could place a greater emphasis on teaching English grammar, because the greatest barrier to teenagers learning a foreign language is surely ignorance of their native tongue. I may be old-fashioned, but how can you begin to conjugate verbs or decide what tense you should be using in a particular context if you’ve never considered how a sentence is constructed?
More important still, if you want to inculcate a desire to learn modern languages in teenagers, is to loosen the grip French holds on modern languages departments. One of my son’s biggest beefs is that if you want to take just one foreign language to Intermediate level in his school it has to be French. Yet Spanish – spoken by more than three times as many people – is surely more useful.
I could go on. But I should probably direct the rest of my rant towards my eldest whose latest ploy in the campaign to drive me insane is to claim that – since you can take a dictionary into the exam – there’s no point in learning any French vocabulary. I know, I shouldn’t take the bait. In fact, now I come to think of it, perhaps the best way to turn my strop merchant into a polyglot is to start going on about just how little learning a foreign language matters in the modern world. I wonder if this policy could be extended to the whole country. If instead of promising to invest millions of pounds tackling the problem, Alasdair Allan told a nation of sullen teenagers the government was going to remove foreign languages from the curriculum, would they march on Holyrood, demanding their right to be taught? «
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Monday 20 May 2013
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