Insight: Why Scots face a language barrier

Mandarin is being introduced to primary schoolchildren via the Confucius classrooms initiative. Picture: Getty
Mandarin is being introduced to primary schoolchildren via the Confucius classrooms initiative. Picture: Getty
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Our children’s lack of foreign language skills cry out for a shake-up in education policy, and yet constant upheaval in our schools may be one of the problems, writes Dani Garavelli

Britons, Scots included, are lousy at speaking foreign languages. You only have to go on holiday to know this. In airports, campsites, hotels and restaurants you find throwbacks from 1970s situation comedies, shouting or miming in the hope of making themselves understood; or self-entitled egotists assuming that everyone from the bank manager to the chamber maid is willing and able to communicate in English.

Some teachers fear exams are a poor indicator of attainment for foreign languages. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Some teachers fear exams are a poor indicator of attainment for foreign languages. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

They are right about the “able” part, at least; citizens of most other European countries are taught basic English at an early age. Our linguistic indolence is entrenched and our continental counterparts have resigned themselves to it. In Italy, expectations are so low that a British child saying “grazie tante” is greeted with the kind of astonishment that would be OTT had they recited a passage from The Decameron. Even those of us who would like to strike up a conversation tend to be held back by the fear of looking foolish.

All this is anecdotal; but there is plenty of research to justify a sense of inadequacy. In 2013, for example, an EC study showed just 9 per cent of 14 to 15-year-olds could speak a foreign language independently (compared with an average of 42 per cent across the 14 countries surveyed) while 39 per cent of adults were capable of having a conversation (compared with an average of 54 per cent).

In a global economy, the ability to speak another language is increasingly important. Whether you work in tourism, hospitality, business or engineering, communicating with other nationalities is key.

Yet in Scotland, the take-up of modern languages (MLs) in secondary school has been steadily decreasing for 20 years, with boys particularly reluctant learners. There are concerns over the continued dominance of French and a decline in German, which some believe has been relegated to “Cinderella status”.

Pre-school children receive a French lesson from a native speaker at nursery. Picture: Esme Allen

Pre-school children receive a French lesson from a native speaker at nursery. Picture: Esme Allen

The Scottish Government knows something has to be done; in 2012, Alasdair Allan, minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, launched the 1+2 policy, which was welcomed by modern languages teachers, although some are sceptical about its chances of success. The policy, which is supposed to be fully implemented by 2020, should mean that all Scottish pupils learn two foreign languages from primary to S3, but questions have been raised about teacher training and whether – with so many subjects now competing for time – efforts are likely to be more than tokenistic.

The Scottish Government has also encouraged the development of Mandarin as a subject. Last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the opening of 24 more Confucius classrooms to allow primary school pupils to learn the language. There are already 14 Confucius classrooms in secondary schools across 18 different authorities. These classrooms are controversial, partly because they are funded by the Chinese government, giving rise to fears they are being used for propaganda purposes, and partly because the Chinese teachers involved are not qualified to take children into SQA exams. There is evidence that the emphasis on Mandarin is kindling interest, but the numbers taking qualifications are still comparatively low (89 took the Higher this year) and it isn’t clear how many are of Chinese ethnicity.

Some critics fear the emphasis on Mandarin will undermine European languages; others ask how – if pupils struggle to grasp French or Spanish – they will cope with a language which has several thousand characters. But Dr Judith McClure, convener of the Scotland China Education Network, believes extending the curriculum is essential.

“China is already the world’s economic superpower,” she says. “We have to give as many of our young people as possible the opportunity to find out about China and learn Chinese, because, first of all, they may be working in China or in places of the world where Chinese is spoken, but also because, here in Scotland, we need to welcome Chinese tourists, to deal with Chinese companies and to attract Chinese ­investment.”

SQA figures show the number of students taking modern languages at Higher increased by 15 per cent this year – the first year of the new qualification – which is good news. But according to leading academic Dr Jim Scott, the statistics hide a more complex truth. Though the number of students doing French, Spanish and even German Highers rose, those taking minority languages (Chinese languages, Gaelic Learners, Russian, Urdu) all fell. The Higher figure also masks a dramatic fall in the proportion of pupils taking MLs at S4, as schools changed from Standard Grades to National Fives as part of the Curriculum for Excellence.

Scott says there was a decrease in enrolment in all MLs at level 3-5 (S4) over the two years following the switch; French dropped by 47 per cent, German by 48 per cent and Chinese languages by 15 per cent.

This phenomenon is largely due to a proportion of secondary schools reducing the number of subjects taken in S4 from eight to six (around 40 per cent). In those schools, once you take English and Maths out of the equation, you are left with just four subjects. With STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) heavily promoted, modern languages are often sidelined.

Last week, ML teachers spoke of the frustration of finding their subject restricted to just one column when choices for S4 are being made, while the sciences are in three. Another told me children were getting poor advice from guidance teachers. “There is a lack of awareness of the utility of taking a language with a science. German and science, German and mechanical engineering: they go hand in hand. Germany is our biggest export partner,” he said.

The upside for teachers is that the quality and motivation of those pupils who continue to take MLs in S4 has improved, with those involved more likely to continue with the subject in S5, but the downside is that MLs may be regaining their reputation as elite subjects. “It does make life easier,” says one teacher, “but I believe languages should be for everyone.”

The poor take-up of MLs in Scotland is only part of the story; there are also questions about the standards those pupils studying language are achieving. Anyone who has followed their own child’s progress through the exams will know it is possible for them to gain both a National 5 and a Higher with a minimal ability to communicate.

Colin Fergusson says his eldest daughter Hannah, who is half-Spanish and studied at private schools in Edinburgh, achieved a B for Standard Grade Mandarin, but found she could not converse with Chinese visitors when she got a job at Edinburgh Castle; then – when she spent a year in France – she was told that, despite a B in Higher French, her day-to-day ability to speak the language was almost nonexistent.

This is not merely parental paranoia. One of the ML teachers I spoke to admitted foreign students who come to his school on cultural exchanges are more advanced in their language skills than their Scottish counterparts. There are myriad factors contributing to this problem. One is that our children are taught very little English grammar. This means that when it comes to studying another language they have to learn concepts such as tenses and verb conjugation from scratch. “When they come into our class, they have never heard terms like past participle,” says one ML teacher.

Where primary teaching is concerned, there are questions over levels of expertise. The idea of having secondary teachers go out and deliver lessons to feeder primaries was mooted, but rejected as too expensive for all but a handful of schools. But an ML Higher is not compulsory for primary teaching. It is difficult to see how primary teachers who don’t speak a second language can be expected to do more than cover numbers, colours and days of the week.

In secondary, the biggest concern is that a focus on attainment has led some teachers to teach “to the test”. In National 5s and Highers, it is possible for pupils to memorise large chunks of material without really understanding it. One principal teacher of ML told me she refused to give out questions for the Higher speaking test in advance because she wanted her pupils to gain their grades on merit, but was often told: “You’re selling the children short.”

Talking to modern languages teachers it is clear there is no shortage of commitment. They support 1+2 in principle, but are concerned about a lack of consistency across Scotland and feel MLs are often at the mercy of the whims of individual local authorities and headteachers.

But why has their subject fared so badly in the 21st Century? Much of the problem is rooted in the shifting political landscape of the past 15 years. In his report, Modern Languages in Scotland: Learner Uptake and Attainment 1996-2014 , Scott, himself a former head, traces ML teaching from the Second World War and finds it has rarely been a priority in Scotland, although it did experience two peaks in the mid-60s and in the eight years from 1988 (after Michael Forsyth championed it).

Reading Scott’s work, the first thing you notice is just how much change the education system has been subjected to since 1996, as local authorities replaced regional councils, Holyrood was established, various educational agencies were scrapped or amalgamated, education ministers/secretaries came and went and the curriculum was overhauled.

In the late 1990s/early 2000s, when there were six or seven curricular initiatives, building on (but sometimes conflicting with) each other, MLs began to fall by the wayside. Many ML teachers argue their subject has never really recovered from the decision – taken in 2001, when Jack McConnell was First Minister – that it would no longer be compulsory to take a foreign language in S4.

Scott believes the focus on results has also influenced some headteachers who see MLs as challenging and therefore less likely to produce top grades.

Now the Scottish Government is committed to 1+2, but there are still many other initiatives competing for their attention: CfE, Girfec, reducing the attainment gap. “I spoke to a lot of headteachers and they were clear that while modern languages were a priority, they were not the priority,” says Scott.

Promoting modern languages in a monoglot society is not easy, but Scottish culture is in a state of flux. Where a generation ago it would have been a rarity to hear a foreign tongue (except perhaps Italian) an upsurge in immigration from eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa means some schools have up to 30 languages within their own intake; that has to make an impact on our attitude to MLs. Also the digital era means it is much easier for pupils today to immerse themselves in another culture and language without having to travel; foreign newspapers, music, TV programmes are all instantly accessible.

However, there are things that could be done to speed things up: for example, a Higher in an ML could become a prerequisite for primary teaching or for entrance to university. And universities could introduce ML courses that were less focused on studying the country’s literature and more on the conducting of business negotiations.

On a micro-level, teachers need to communicate the value of learning another language not only to those who aspire to work abroad, but those who plan to stay at home. And they need to find innovative ways of engaging boys. Business leaders could become more proactive. And of course, if 1+2 is to work, the Scottish Government will have to make sure it is adequately resourced.

McClure accepts much work needs to be done but is convinced change is in the air. “I think 1+2 is inspiring people,” she says, “This renewed enthusiasm has seen more teachers learning Mandarin, the burgeoning of early learning projects and innovative collaborations between schools.

“We have the enthusiasm, we have the policy, we have leadership from the ­Scottish Government, now we need leadership in schools and particularly the leadership of headteachers,” says McClure. “They need to look at what they are offering their young people and say: ‘Is it going to give you options for employment?’ and, if not, then they have got to talk to their languages teachers and find a way of achieving that. It’s amazing what you can do if you are determined. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1