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Languages optional at KS4

Audrey McKie

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I would like some views about this growing problem for us MFL teachers, the fact that MFL are going optional in more and more schools tyhese days. I know that the decision was made 3 years ago, however, it is only now that we are starting to see the full extent of the decision.

I am very concerned at various level. The teacher in me is concerned about the fact that children are not going to be given the opportunity to have some sort of eexperience of a foreign culture and I think this is a problem very specific to Britain. I understand that Lnaguages for all wasn't the ideal solution either but hey do it in other countries (like France) and it doesn't seem to be such a problem there. The career woman in me thinks that this measure is catastrophic for job and career prospects. Many of us who have left or will leave their jobs will not be replaced and people like me who are trying to relocate, following my fiance's move are going to find themselves in very tricky situations. I hope that it doesnt get as bad as the education system in Germany whereby techers have to 'swao' jobs when they want to move schools.

has your school already gone 100% optional? wht are the consequences of such a decision? how have numbers been affected?

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The government's policy on languages is an unmitigated disaster. We are only just beginning to see the knock-on effects that it will have. Languages in HE are already in a sorry state. Fewer and fewer students have been filtering through from the schools into HE for a number of years now. I write from personal experience as former director of the language centre at Thames Valley University (TVU) - or Ealing College as it used to be known. During the 1970s we were sending students to Brussels to sit the demanding exams for entry into the translating and interpreting professions - and many passed and enjoyed successful careers as professional linguists. But the supply of suitable students coming through from the schools dried up, and in the late 1990s the language departments at TVU were forced to close.

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I can understand your point but I am still wondering why this has been happening. When I was a student (I did a degree in EFL in France) there were 500 of us in first year, half of the above who did not complete the degree, yet it is still a strong basis to run a very healthy faculty. I came to England as an assistant about 4 years ago and I thought the job was great as I was 'in charge' of 18 A-Level students. However, I rapidly grew aware that that year group was not like the others, in L6 there were 6 students and the numbers have been decreasing ever since. I am talking here about an independent school where children still have to do a language to GCSE. Now that in most state school children arre no longer expected to carry on with a language it makes things even more difficult for teachers to be able to teach their subjects at a high level.

When the measure was first annouunced I naively thought that we could get more pupils to choose Languages at GCSE by introducing it earlier in the curriculum, but I read in the TES a few Fridays ago that there is no sign this is going to happen, which is a real shame. There has been a debate in France for years about introducing languages early for many reasons especially physiological and I can't quite believe that what the British are doing is the exact opposite. What really breaks my heart is that most adults that I meet, when I tell them what I do for a living always say that if there was one subject they wish they'd done better in at school it would be languages.


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The DfES claims that children (in England) will be "entitled" to learn a language from the age of seven (KS2) under it's new policy.

See the document entitled "Languages for all: languages for life - a strategy for England": http://www.dfes.gov.uk/languagesstrategy

See also the site of the National Advisory Centre on Early Language Learning:


But "entitlement" is one thing and the reality is another. There is so far little evidence that there will be enough properly trained primary school teachers to put the government's policy into action.

Regarding the achievements of chidren at secondary school, fewer and fewer are reaching a useful level in MFL, i.e. that corresponding to the Common European Framework (CEF) Level B1 (Threshold), although the "Languages Ladder", an initiative recently introduced by the DfES, is (finally) making an attempt to relate our national qualifications to the CEF. See:


Personally, I think they are a bit optimistic. I don't believe that Higher GCSE is equivalent to Level B1 - which requires around 350-400 learning hours to reach, assuming that learners are motivated and have a good learning environemt.

Have a look at my (deliberately provocative) article at:


"Information and Communications Technology and Modern Foreign Languages in the National Curriculum: some personal views"

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English is often introduced to children from Class 1 (7 year-olds) in Sweden, and organised teaching (with textbooks, etc) usually starts in Class 3.

However, there's also a widely-held view amongst academic language didactics specialists that Swedish children here learn English despite the teaching they receive, rather than because of it. It's not difficult to see why we think this! School teaching is almost exclusively based on grammar-translation, and the version of grammatical metalanguage they use fell out of use in the English-speaking world in the 1950s (for very good reasons).

My explanation for why language teachers in Swedish schools make such beginners' errors is, well, because that's what many of them are - beginners! I'm working on a PGCE course at the moment, for example, and the poor bloody infantry of teacher trainees are going to receive precisely 6 hours of training in how to teach English - despite the fact that they're all going to be teachers of English at secondary schools.

I think that MFL teaching has a metaphorical mountain to climb in many countries in the world. We tend to put our most highly-qualified teachers to work on the pupils who need them least - the ones at the top. Then we entrust the vital task of teaching beginners to the teachers who have the least chance of success - people without even one term of study at higher level of the language they're supposed to teach, and who lack all but rudimentary training in language didactics.

Fortunately highly-qualified doesn't always mean good, and poorly-qualified often does actually mean good (thanks to skewed priorities in higher education in many university departments), but it's a strange way to run language teaching.

Edited by David Richardson
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Thanks to David for his illuminating comments on the situation in primary school language teaching in Sweden. I didn't realise that the situation was similar to that in the UK at this level. Teaching young children a foreign language requires a high degree of specialised skills.

I can imagine why Swedish children learn English in spite of the teaching that they receive. Young Swedes, in common with young people in many parts of Europe, are constantly exposed to English. I have only visited Sweden four times, but it was obvious that English was all around you: pop culture, sport, slogans on teeshirts, etc. I have been to Norway, Denmark and Finland many times, and the situation is much the same. My brother used to work for Statoil in Norway. He never bothered to learn Norwegian as all business was conducted in English.

In the early 1980s I visited an upper secondary school (students aged 16+) in Norway and was invited by the English language teacher to take a conversation class with a group of about half a dozen students. Their English was impressive. I noticed that two of the students were wearing Manchester United football scarves. I asked them about this, and it turned out that they were keen followers of Man United. They also watched "Match of the Day" every Saturday, which was beamed out to Norway direct from the UK, with the commentary in English. Now there's motivation for you! (Norway follows UK football throughout the winter season - there's not a lot of football played in Norway during their severe winter.)

In the UK, however, we are constantly "protected" from foreign languages. Every time a French- or German-speaking politician appears in news broadcasts there is a voice-over that stifles the speaker's voice. COuldn't we have sub-titles instead, and then at least we might get some listening practice.

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Thanks to both David and Graham for your interesting points fof view. I still can't quite get my head round the fact that language learning is poor in the UK. It can't just be linked to the fact that English is omnipresent in the world. There has to be more than that... How come students in Britain always have a lower level of MFL than their continental counterparts at the same age?

I remember being able to hold converstaions in English and German about topics such as politics, racism or pollution when I was 15. I couldn't imagine my top set in Yr 11 doing it. Now, I understand that the national Curriculum and the GCSE syllabus might have a large part to play in the matter. still! A mother asked me 2 years ago at Parents' evening when her son would be doing some French literature. I felt powerless... we don't do literature at KS4. We haven't got time and it won't get you an A... The lady in question is Dutch and I understand that in Holland, at least when she was at school, Literature was one of the various media used to teach languages. Although it may have its inconvenients, it teaches pupils how to use some tenses and certainly how to use the 3rd person...

It only just raises another question which is fundamental to our society. We hear that people don't read and that's because of the new modes of entertainment (TV, DVDs etc). Isn't the education system responsible as well if Literature is only accessible to the elite, the VERY VERY few who decide to carry on with Languages at A level?

On this note I'll have to sign off and I am eagerly awaiting your replies.


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I think our apparent weakness in learning foreign language boils down to two issues:

1. Lack of motivation.

2. Insufficent time allocation in the school curriculum - or badly organised time allocation, e.g. two double lessons per week.

I am also aware of an increasing reluctance among young people to read these days. Does this explain why students find languages hard? This article caught my attention recently:

"Online health advice for people with diabetes is often too complex to

understand, analysis suggests."

A scientist at Bath University looked at pages about diabetes on 15

internet health sites run mainly by charities and official bodies. He

found people would need a reading ability of an educated 11 to

17-year-old to understand the sites. However, he said the average

reading age of people in the UK was equivalent to an educated



Poor reading ability seems to be a growing problem. Over the last two

years my business has received an increasing number of telephone calls

from ICT technicians in schools requesting technical advice on

installing software packages that we have sold them. My initial

reaction is to refer the technician to the technical section of the

manual that accompanies the software. When I do this there is often an

embarrassed silence at the other end of the telephone. There appears to

be not only a reluctance to read anything in print but also an inability

to read anything in print. It is clear from emails that I have received

from some ICT technicians that they cannot write correct English - maybe

they can't read it either.

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Audrey asks:

How come students in Britain always have a lower level of MFL than their continental counterparts at the same age?

It's not just the UK. Ireland fares only slightly better, even though Irish youngsters are exposed to two languages, English and Gaelic, from an early age, which should in theory raise their awareness of foreign languages in general and be a good preparation for learning French, German Spanish, etc. It has to be said, however, that only highly motivated students make good progress in Gaelic - unless they happen to live in one of the few remaining Gaelic speaking areas.

Americans and Canadians are no better than the Brits - probably a lot worse on the whole. Our family has relations in Canada, way out on one of the islands off the coast of British Columbia. All but one are resolutely monolingual, in spite of Canada's supposed bilingual policy, and they frequently complain about taxpayers' money being wasted on translating documents into French. The one exception on the Canadian side of our family happens to be a native French speaker from Ontario.

I visited Montreal a few years ago, and I always addressed waiters/waitresses and shop assistants in French, only to be told immediately how wonderful my French was - and then they switched to English. I was surprised to discover how many Anglos living in Montreal made little effort to master French.

A colleague of mine, a very experienced language teacher, argues that English is a bad starting point for learning other languages. English lacks, for example, gender in nouns (v. French and German), cases (v. German), agreement of adjectives (v. French and German), etc - i.e. too many new concepts. There is also the well-documented point that boys are "turned off" by French - they often perceive it as a "cissy" subject, and failure in French is regarded by many boys as an achievement! There have been several articles on this subject in the ALL Journal.

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I visited Montreal a few years ago, and I always addressed waiters/waitresses and shop assistants in French, only to be told immediately how wonderful my French was - and then they switched to English.

This is not unusual Graham - I have had the same thing happen to me when visiting european countries and trying to converse! It seems that everyone wants to practice their English when they enounter a native speaker and have little time for encouraging someone wanting to speak the language of the country they are visiting. My first real experience of this was when, at age 18, (many years ago!), I spent 6 weeks at a summer school in France for students from all over europe who were there to improve their French. I was able to use almost no French for the entire time I was there - students from England were used for English practice by tutors and students alike! It was very frustrating but they would not be thwarted!

In addition, there seems to be an amazing lack of ability by most non English speakers to comprehend the meanings of words from their own language not pronounced with the precisely correct accent. My father battled with this for many years as he tried to speak basic French, and to learn Danish (as he married a Dane) - he never was able to converse adequately in either language as his accent always confused native speakers even though his vocabulary and grammar were carefully learnt.

Regarding the lack of interest by English speaking school children in learning european languages - part of the problem is that they see little relevance in learning. When do they ever hear another language being spoken apart from at school? Any time that anyone appears on TV speaking in another language, it is very quickly translated by a helpful 'voice over'. This gives an impression that the language is not worth hearing and that English is much preferable! Films are rarely subtitled so that the language can be heard at the same time as reading subtitles - this is the way that many English or American films appear on european TV, so their youth are much more exposed to the English language. Similarly, most youth music is recorded in the English language so the singing of lyrics in acceptable and 'cool'. Imagine most English speaking students singing lyrics in French!?

I fear that the demise of learning foreign languages is not an easy issue to resolve. :rolleyes:

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I visited Montreal a few years ago, and I always addressed waiters/waitresses and shop assistants in French, only to be told immediately how wonderful my French was - and then they switched to English

When I visited Montreal two years ago using French got me very quickly through customs. :rolleyes: I also had a nice conversation with our bus driver in French, only to discover that a. I do not speak French well and b. there are differences between 'European' French and Quebec French.

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Marco writes:

there are differences between 'European' French and Quebec French.

Yes, SUBSTANTIAL differences. The local dialect is known as "joual", which is how "cheval" (horse) is pronounced in the Québec dialect. My French-speaking relative in Canada is perfectly intelligible to me (she has an educated accent) but I am always fascinated by the way she pronounces the nasal sounds "-en", "-in", "-on", etc.

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As in Sweden, here in Spain, exposure to English throughout many years of education certainly doesn't guarantee anyone learns it! Students have to take English right up to the age of 18, and it's even a compulsory subjects in the university access exam. However, you rarely meet English-speaking youngsters who didn't learn their English at some sort of private language school... They all seem to have a far greater command of the rules of English grammar than I do, but they can't communicate. This is a reflection of the backwardness of many aspects of the Spanish educational system. It's come a long way in the last 25 years, but there's still a very long way to go...

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Many eons ago, when I was a teacher of English and French in Dartford, I went on an in-service training course run by the ILEA (what a crime it was to abolish that body!). One of the presentations was from a school in North London who'd achieved great results in French like this:

In the 1-3 years (of secondary school - as was) they exchanged their hours of French with their colleagues in other subjects. Each pupil got 1 hour/week in which they learned a different language up to a certain level of proficiency each term. At the end of the term the pupil received a certificate saying, for example, "I can buy an ice-cream in Moscow" or "I can read the headlines in the Rome newspaper".

Then in years 4-5, the French teachers would get two whole afternoons per week, and I realise now that what they did was the kind of communicative language teaching I've become familiar with from English over the years.

The years 1-3 activities primed the pupils to realise that a) there are different languages in the world, and :rolleyes: you don't have to know everything to know something.

Over the years I've taught people English in all sorts of contexts and cultures, and I don't really buy the idea that there are easy and more difficult languages - it all depends where you're coming from. There aren't even easy and more difficult structures. You might think that "what would the witch have done if the dwarfs had been at home when she called" is complicated, but the Swedish equivalent is almost a word-for-word transliteration (vad skulle häxan ha gjort om dvärgarna hade varit hemma när hon ringde).

If I were having to teach, say, Swedish in the UK (why not?), motivation would be the first thing I'd have to tackle (Swedish footballers could be a good way in - get both the boys and the girls!), but I'd also have to make sure that I didn't make the language unnecessarily impenetrable by filling the pupils' heads with useless grammatical metalanguage that even Swedes don't understand (they call their noun 'genders' utrum och neutrum, which I've never heard a comprehensible explanation for!).

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David writes:

The years 1-3 activities primed the pupils to realise that a) there are different languages in the world, and  you don't have to know everything to know something.

See The Language Investigator website. This site is aimed mainly at primary school teachers who are interested introducing a multilingual dimension into their lessons, but the materials are relevant to teachers and pupils in secondary education too. The work is a result of a one-year project called "Thinking through Languages" which was developed within a group of Coventry primary schools. The project was funded by the Nuffield Foundation. An excellent site for raising awareness about languages, with lots of useful links: http://www.language-investigator.co.uk

There was a lot of this kind of stuff going on in connection with the European Day of Languages, 26 September. See the European Centre for Modern Languages site: http://www.ecml.at/edl

David writes:

Over the years I've taught people English in all sorts of contexts and cultures, and I don't really buy the idea that there are easy and more difficult languages - it all depends where you're coming from.

Exactly - "it all depends where you are coming from". Indo-European languages are broadly similar, and even if you move from one sub-group (e.g. Romance) to another (e.g. Germanic) you often find a lot of similarities in lexis and grammar, and once you've learned one language in the sub-group you have a good starting point for learning others in the same sub-group, e.g. my first foreign language is German but I can make a lot of sense of written Dutch (not spoken Dutch, however). I had to learn Hungarian a few years ago. Now that's a challenge if your previous experience is only within the Indo-European family! The lexis is totally different, and there are aspects of Hungarian syntax and morphology that you won't find anywhere in other Western European languages, e.g. "Bécsbe a feleségemmel mentem" = "I went to Vienna with my wife". The sentence parses thus:

"Bécs" = "Vienna", with suffix "be" meaning "to".

"a" = "the".

"feleség" = "wife", with an infix "em" meaning "my" and a suffix "mel" meaning "with".

"mentem" = "I went", the "t" indicating past tense and the "em indicating first person singular. The normal position for the verb is at the end of the sentence.

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