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John Simkin

Modern Languages: GCSE and A levels

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What do members think of the figures published showing a sharp fall in the numbers of students studying modern languages. Clearly, the decision to make modern languages optional at GCSE is partly the cause of this trend. There is also a tendency for students to opt for subjects perceived as being “easier” than other subjects (big rise in students studying physical education and religious studies). However, geography, another subject that is often perceived as being “easy” saw a fall in the numbers taking the exam this year.

I think this is just another example of how successive governments have mismanaged the National Curriculum. The original plan was for all the subjects to be compulsory between 5 and 16. I was a member of the team advising the History Committee and this was a key aspect of the thinking that went into drawing up the content of the History NC. This of course shaped what went into each subject. Decisions to make history optional at 14 has caused tremendous problems that have still not been solved. It is another example of government ministers not fully understanding these issues.

You see a similar incompetence with the way the government has handled the Tomlinson Report. I cross-examined a government spokeswoman on this at a recent national conference. All she could say was “that is a very good question” or “yes, that question has been raised many times before”. Of course, we did not get any good answers. In fact, the only appropriate answer was “I am sorry, we are just incompetent and are incapable of intelligently running the UK education system.”

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It's a disaster, of course. Language teachers are furious with this government's policies.

Elsewhere in this Forum there is a reference to the story of Tom Whipple, a journalist who managed to get an A in Sociology at AS level after a fortnight's study:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/online/story/0,3605,748499,00.html

I have mixed reactions to the Tom Whipple story. On the one hand, it may just prove that Tom Whipple is exceptionally clever and can mug up on a subject quickly - and, as a journalist, he probably would have been acquainted with many sociological issues by virtue of experience in his job. On the other hand, I wonder how easy it would be, for example, for a journalist to mug up as quickly on maths or a skill-related subject such as music or foreign languages. There are stories of gifted mathematicians and musical and linguistic geniuses, but these are rare people.

I consider myself a fairly gifted linguist. I speak German fluently, French adequately and I can "survive" in Italian, Spanish, Russian and Hungarian, and I can make some sense of written Dutch, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish. I could not, however, imagine myself getting up to AS standard in a new foreign language in a fortnight, even in a cognate language of one that I had already learned. The Council of Europe estimates that an adult learner needs on average 350-400 learning hours in order to reach Level B1 (Threshold Level) of the Common European Framework (roughly a good GCSE pass). At this level you just begin to communicate with a degree of confidence - and you need many, many more hours to achieve fluency. I got up to basic conversational level in Hungarian after around 100 learning hours - an hour a week with a Hungarian teacher for two years, combined with six two-week visits to the country over the same period. I found it difficult to progress further, however - I just ran out of time.

This explains why headteachers in England are allowing foreign languages to go into decline in state secondary schools, i.e. they are perceived as "difficult" (which is borne out by GCSE results) and they skew the perfomance tables. At least two thirds of state secondary schools in England have now stopped making foreign languages compulsory beyond Key Stage 3. We are stepping backwards into a time when only public school and grammar school kids acquired any kind of proficiency in languages, grooming them for jobs in the Foreign Office, The British Council and those industries whose bosses were intelligent enough to realise the value of knowing a foreign language to our export potential.

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It's a disaster, of course. Language teachers are furious with this government's policies.

Elsewhere in this Forum there is a reference to the story of Tom Whipple, a journalist who managed to get an A in Sociology at AS level after a fortnight's study:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/online/story/0,3605,748499,00.html

I have mixed reactions to the Tom Whipple story. On the one hand, it may just prove that Tom Whipple is exceptionally clever and can mug up on a subject quickly - and, as a journalist, he probably would have been acquainted with many sociological issues by virtue of experience in his job. On the other hand, I wonder how easy it would be, for example, for a journalist to mug up as quickly on maths or a skill-related subject such as music or foreign languages. There are stories of gifted mathematicians and musical and linguistic geniuses, but these are rare people.

Tom Whipple got 97% in the exam. He says: “It seems I can draw two possible conclusions. I could cite the result as proof that AS-levels, particularly the newer ones, are easy - thereby degrading the efforts of thousands of teachers and pupils. Or I could regard it as proof that I'm really rather clever.”

This first part is definitely true. However, as someone who taught Sociology for many years, it is one thing to get an A at AS-level. Is something else to get an A grade after completing your second year. The research project stretches the very brightest. Nor is it something you can get from studying a revision book for two weeks. I can assure you that a final "A" grade needs more than two weeks study.

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Whoops! I pasted in the wrong link to the Tom Whipple story. It should be:

http://education.guardian.co.uk/aslevels/s...1554179,00.html

It's hard to get ANY kind of qualification in modern languages. The problem with acquiring a SKILL as opposed to KNOWLEDGE - and this applies to mastering a musical intrument as well as a foreign language - is that it takes hours of PRACTICE, invoving a lot of TIME. TIME is precious in the school timetable today, and this is what may account for the drop in standards and pass rates of skill-based subjects. You can practise some of the skills involved in acquiring a foreign language on your own, e.g. the receptive skills of reading and listening, but you need help in acquiring the productive skills of speaking and writing. ICT can help in providing an artificial environment in which you can practise these skills, but there is no substitute for a good teacher or, better still, a long visit to a foreign country if you wish to acquire a high degree of proficiency in listening and speaking and develop good conversational skills.

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When the results came out, I was very angry to see that, yet again, MFL was a target as an underachiever. Yet I was pleased to hear the journalist say 'maybe the dramatic fall in the take out of languages at GCSE has to do with the fact that the subject is now no longer compulsory; and that is not right.'

On a more positive note, in my little group of adult learners taking a Spanish GCSE as an evening class, so far (I haven't managed to get in touch with all of my 'classmates') our pass rate of A*s and As is 100%.

I don't blame pupils for choosing easier subjects where they know that they will get better grades, in their situation, I would do the same. I think that the option system has to be revised and and made more coherent from one school to the other. Why can't we go towards a system whereby options could be organised in groups and thus try to deliver a balanced curriculum? By that I mean to try to avoid the pitfall of the completely optional system where pupils can have very little literacy or numeracy etc except for the core subjects, yet that (utopic?) system would still allow some specialisation. I have in mind the post 16 French educational system, at least what was in place when I was doing my Bac. For example, I worked out that I was better at Languages than anything else, I quite liked reading too, so the Literary block was good for me: 2 languages, French, Humanities were the main components, and I was happy with that. I was less happy with the 8 weekly hours of philosophy but I made do with it because I got more out of it than I would have of any other block. On top of that I had to do one hour a week of biology, of physics and of maths. Only one of the 'scientific' subject would be sanctioned with an exam which we were told a month prior to the exam: it was physics, there was therefore no reason to get a bad mark as we knew what to revise, so I scored 95% (fluke). That grade is probably not worth very much but it looks good on the CV!!

To finish with, I think the main point that I was trying to get across is that we need to have a clear structure to abide by and that it should be the same for all schools.

;)

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I agree with Audrey.

The main problem lies with the performance tables. Headteachers are very good at working out which GCSEs deliver the best pass rates and this determines which subjects are on offer to their students. For many years foreign languages have faired badly in the performance tables, and now that foreign languages are no longer compulsory in schools in England beyond Key Stage 3 the majority of schools have stopped entering candidates for GCSEs in foreign languages.

If performance tables are here to stay I would favour making certain core subjects compulsory, e.g. as in the requirements for university entrance when I was at school in the 1950s and 1960s. In order to get into university you had to have good A-levels in at least two subjects – which would normally be the subjects that you intended to study at university or closely related subjects – plus five O-levels (= GCSE) in English, a Foreign Language, Maths or a Science subject, plus two other optional subjects. As a prospective student of German at university I had to have an O-level in Maths or Science (I passed in Maths) and in English, and a Civil Engineer, for example, had to have an O-level in English and a Foreign Language.

In other words, this system was close to the Bac in France and which, in my opinion, made much more sense. I think I received a more rounded education than kids do nowadays. In the UK we are now faced with a whole generation of humanities students who can’t calculate a percentage and science and technology students who can only communicate in English, which they often do very badly. You should see the badly spelt and ungrammatical emails that I receive from ICT managers in schools! As for foreign languages, well most school ICT managers are clueless. I recall a long discussion with an ICT manager who was convinced that there was something wrong with a program that we had sold to his foreign languages department, because there were “funny letters on the screen that looked like Greek”. The program in question was for learners of Russian. I explained to the ICT manager that Russian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, which is different from our alphabet. His reaction: “Cyril who?”

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I agree with Graham concerning the over-specialisation of our students. It is rare to find people who are competent in more than one field, unlike people of our generation or older.

A relative of mine is a world-wide acclaimed engineer whose career only advanced because he is able to conduct conferences in (broken) English without a translator or notes! The Americans love him!

A while back, I found myself explaining to GCSE students that there wasn't a King in England at the moment an that the Queen Mother (who had just passed on ) was the Queen's mother. They were totally miffed with my explanation and one of them earnestly explained that he didn't know because he wasn't doing history... Yet, studying geography di not help as he thought that the capital of Chile was Con Carne!

I despair...

Ona more positive note, I think that we should see a sharp rise in the MFL results in the few years to come because of the optional system. I have to admit (reluctantly) that it has some positive sides. I teach 3 GCSE groups this year who are all very nice and motivated and relatively bright and they have all CHOSEN to do the subject. For the first time in my small career, I enjoy teaching KS4 more than KS3! Let's wait until next August and see what the option-students deliver.

B)

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I'm afraid that the trend away from teaching foreign languages says something about attitudes towards foreigners among Anglo-Saxons... For better or worse, the rest of the world seems to learn English as a second language, so the "speak slowly and loudly and they'll understand" has become common among both Americans and Brits. Hearing English tourists hear speaking to proud Madrilenos as if they're slightly deaf, mentally-deficient children really makes me cringe...

I don't think it's a coincidence that among the very best students I've taught, from the linguistic point of view, are people who speak a language like Dutch or Finnish which NO-ONE ELSE speaks. Thus, for them, learning a second language becomes much more necessary.

I'm afraid I don't agree, though, that teaching children a foreign language is essentially very difficult -- accepting that ALL teaching can be terribly difficult unless the circumstances are right. Having taught in international schools for 30 years, I've seen absolute beginners achieve reasonable functional fluency within months, and almost bi-lingual standards within a couple of years. So much depends on the ethos of the school and the standard of teaching.

Of course, the educational "bottom line" is the exam system. At many international schools, the IB is that bottom line, and mastery of a second language is a requirement for the award of a diploma. This means that schools are obliged to invest in teaching second and third languages throughout the school. It's unfortunate that the English system appears to see nothing wrong with students dropping language courses at the age of 14...

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I was re-reading this thread and had to admit that things are not getting better...

The take up for languages at GCSE in Year 10 (prospective, that is) is extremely low (1/3 of cohort, including many dual linguits). However, Business Studies and Media Studies have more students than they can cope with!

So the new idea is that those taking the aforementioned subjects should study a language as a compulsory component of that course. Well, I can see how this could be a good idea in theory: broader education, more skills, more employable students... Indeed, if you want to work, for example in export, it seems fundamental to know at least ONE language. Yet, in practice, I think it'll only serve as a deterrent for many students who will therfore not take those courses.

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On the other hand, Audrey, linking language courses to a subject like Business Studies could be the first step away from the abyss for modern languages. Specialist language courses (we talk about ESP in English as a Foreign Language, which stands for English for Special Purposes) *can* be studied successfully by people with a low level of language skills, even by zero beginners. I've taught the Cashiers' course in Saudi Arabia, for example, where we had to teach Saudis who couldn't even recognise the Latin alphabet (let alone the intricacies of 'one, two, three') to take customers through the process of buying travellers' cheques and charging them to their bank account. I once also constructed an ESP course on the hoof for zero beginner marine biologists in Angola, where we had six weeks to get them up to a sufficient standard in English to be able to participate in a scientific conference on marine biology.

The key factor, of course, is motivation (and I *know* they don't have any! I used to teach French in England once). So the trick is to get the pupils motivated to learn things about Business Studies in French, rather than hoping that French alone will motivate them.

You probably know about instrumental and integrative motives for learning a language, so I'll just say that the pupils clearly don't have integrative motives, and the only instrumental motives they've been offered are ones like 'in some unspecified future time, MFL will help you get a job or get into university, but we can't quite say how'. The trick, now, is to set up some instrumental motives which are much closer to home.

EFL teachers often have to get involved with ESP, and I'm sure we'd be happy to share our experiences.

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I don’t think teaching business languages at school is the solution. One needs to get the students’ general level of language skills up to a respectable level first.

What constitutes a “respectable level” is a matter for debate, however. A few years ago I helped develop language courses for airline staff: check-in staff, information desk staff, cabin crew – not pilots, however, as they all have to follow a special course in Aviation English. One of the airlines we worked with used to recruit school-leavers in the UK, but they were finding it increasingly difficult to find school-leavers with a decent knowledge of the basics of any foreign language. They therefore began to hire French, German, Italian and Spanish native speakers, all of whom had a good knowledge of English from school and who just needed to top up their knowledge with a short course in airline language. One of the airline language instructors told me that she had noticed a steady decline in UK students’ language skills over the years. At one time, she said, an O-level was a good starting point for additional training in airline language, but the new GCSE appeared to be less rigorous and therefore an A-level became the starting point. Then the supply of students with A-levels dried up, and the airline began looking across the Channel.

In another part of this forum I have mentioned Amazon’s exit from Slough, Berkshire, to Cork, Ireland, because of the difficulty Amazon have found recruiting students with a good knowledge of foreign languages to staff their European customer services department in Slough. The 2005 Eurobarometer survey shows that the Irish are around 10 percentage points ahead of the British in terms of their ability to hold a conversation in a foreign language. Partly, this is my fault. Back in the early 1990s I acted as a consultant to the University of Limerick, helping them set up a new language centre. This was at the time when Thames Valley University (TVU) still had well-equipped language centres on its Slough and Ealing campuses. I retired as Director of the Ealing Language Centre at TVU in 1993, and not long after that TVU’s language departments and both language centres closed.

Students in UK schools (and teachers too!) need to be made aware of these problems rather than attempting to learn languages for business at school. Language skills for business are mostly industry-specific and need to be taught by specialists. British Airways used to run "taster days" for school kids, introducing them to airline language. I think these days took place at their training centre in West Drayton. The kids were rewarded with the BA cabin crew language badge at the end of the day. I still have one of the taster days booklets for German here on my bookshelf. I dont't think this scheme is still in operation, however, and I have no names that I can contact now. Languages ceased to be a training priority for airlines after 9/11. All their training efforts went into security.

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Read this article in The Times Online:

It’s no longer enough just to say it louder

English firms need to get up to speed on the languages and mores of their trading partners, writes Mike Nicks

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2095-2135663.html

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