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Graham Davies

All we need is English

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There's a big debate going on at the BBC website:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/talking_point/4443911.stm

which contains many public reactions to a news item on the claim made in a House of Lords report that poor language skills are having a negative effect on Britain's business performance - relating to the current situation in state secondary schools in England (Note: England, NOT Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland) whereby foreign languages only have to be studied by children up to the age of 14. Most of the reactions are positive about studying foreign languages, but there are quite a few that support the view that there is no point in learning a foreign language as all the world trades in English.

What do YOU think?

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"We sell to other people in English, but we buy in our own language"

I don't know where that quote comes from … but I think it's true.

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I found this at:

http://www.businessgerman.com/why_learn_businessgerman.htm

The advantage of bilingual employees to an export-oriented firm is obvious. Any company seeing a target market in Europe will be working to improve the bilingual ability of its employees ... and German is the language behind the biggest group of buyers!

A Danish saying goes:

"The Germans sell in English, but they also buy in German."

And you shouldn't forget the significant number or German-speaking Nobel Prize winners that give an important place for German in the scientific community: 30 Nobel prizes for chemistry, 25 for medicine, 21 for physics, 10 for literature and 8 peace prizes.

Learn German and you'll tap one of the most important markets in the world, because nothing convinces a customer more than when you speak his own language!"

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Guest Andrew Moore

Hm, indeed the world does do many things in English. But it does not follow from that that one should not learn any other language.

However, there is a reasonable discussion to be had about the relative merit of language studies in a curriculum. Is it better for an English child to learn German, French and Physics, or French, Chemistry and Physics? We tend to like having at least one bit of foreign language (and science), value two even more, but do not give opportunities for three or more.

The dropping, in England, of the universal requirement to study a foreign language in secondary education was probably humane. That's because the practice had become so unpopular. There is no fundamental reason why learning a second or third language should be so painful for so many students. But somehow the English approach achieved that. My observation is that this was because, from the start, it was, in many schools, never serious - there were very limited goals, such as learning lists of vocabulary, but never an expectation that all learners would become socially confident speakers. That's about as much fun as it would be to teach football by reading explanations of it in books.

However, given that in many things English people seem relatively intelligent (we apparently do quite well in maths), I'm sure the faults here lie in the system and cultural expectations rather than in the raw material.

I would not want to justify learning languages simply by appealing to the desire for success in business. That's a remote and unattractive motivation for many young people, and not even especially laudable for those who feel it.

And I'm sure that where an area of learning has become deeply unpopular, it does not make sense to continue to compel people to experience the failing system. First we should find ways to make language learning such that the learners will do it by choice. I'm also sure that the most successful system will allow different approaches for learners of different aptitudes. I had a superb German teacher: when I started to learn the language he never uttered a word of English for about six weeks - everything was done (or said) in German. But that would not have been appropriate for all learners, who could have been perpetually baffled.

The problem with languages in England is perhaps a part of the problem of the English system of the National Curriculum and a glut of tests in a few subjects, that determined people's priorities. Had we replaced the tests in English with tests in another language, then who knows what might have happened?

I have not noticed, by the way, that the Scots, Welsh and Irish are markedly more successful than the English in learning modern foreign languages. I think the problem is in the British culture generally. (Welsh people seem to learn their national language well enough, but that may be because of the massive cultural support, and the way it is taught from early on.)

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Andrew writes:

My observation is that this was because, from the start, it was, in many schools, never serious - there were very limited goals, such as learning lists of vocabulary, but never an expectation that all learners would become socially confident speakers.

There's a good deal of truth in this, and it is partly due to the National Curriculum for Modern Foreign Languages, which is not particularly liked by most MFL teachers.

For years we have failed to relate our national exam system to the far more sensible and realistic aims of the six-point scale of the Common European Framework (CEF) for languages. Finally, the DfES has come up with the Languages Ladder, which recognises the importance of the CEF and its functional/notional orientation. The CEF is a yardstick that has already been adopted by most members of the Council of Europe. Assessment is related to sets of "can do" statements (which make much more sense than the vacuous and unrealistic statements in the National Curriculum), as are the online DIALANG tests. See:

http://www.dfes.gov.uk/languages/DSP_languagesladder.cfm

http://www.dialang.org

Level B1 (Threshold Level) of the CEF scale is the third level. It represents the level at which the averagely motivated learner begins to communicate with a degree of confidence. It takes around 350-400 learning hours to reach B1 - and I guess this is just too much for the school timetable these days.

Looking back on my own schooldays in the 1950s I recall that we had five lesssons of French every week, each lasting around 40/45 minutes, for five years. If you take out weeks lost preparing for and doing exams, etc, this amounts to around 550-600 learning hours. Most of us passed O level French.

The French language training course for Eurostar train drivers consists of 600 class-contact hours plus homework.

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There's something extra painful about being a beginner in a foreign language, as opposed to being a beginner in, say, Geography.

If you think that the capital of Brazil is Rio de Janeiro, and it turns out to be Brasilia, most people just shrug and say to themselves, "who cares?"

We're all used to being able to say just what we want in our native language, though, and most of the people who stumble over words are babies and young children. So … when we stumble with the foreign language, we get embarrassed and flustered - and try to avoid being in that situation in the future.

You can't avoid getting things wrong when you start learning a foreign language. If the classroom situation is such that this isn't painfully embarrassing, then most people will persevere. If it is, though, then lots of people quickly give up even trying.

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