Education Quandary

'My daughter wants to give up French as soon as possible. She says doing it is a waste of time since everyone speaks English and she won't ever need another language. What can I say to persuade her that it's worth carrying on?'
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The Independent Online

HILARY'S ADVICE

HILARY'S ADVICE

She isn't alone. Many of today's students have no interest in modern languages, and schools are falling into line behind them – a third of all maintained schools are planning to make languages optional for pupils over 14 under the Government's new languages strategy. And it's easy to see why. Language teachers are thin on the ground; good ones practically an endangered species. Then there is the question of grades. Modern language GCSEs are seen as hard, and mediocre results can drag schools down in the league tables. If students don't want to do a language in the first place, schools argue, why should they wrestle with these problems to make them?

Well, for a start, it isn't true that "everybody" speaks English. According to the Centre for Information on Language Training and Research only 25 per cent of the world's population speak any English at all, and only about 6 per cent speak it as a native language. Not surprisingly, people with languages are highly sought after in the job market and languages graduates have higher rates of employability than most other degrees, including business studies and computing. Yet languages are in crisis, and not many people think that the Government's plans to introduce more language teaching in primary schools, while simultaneously allowing 14-year-olds to drop it, will do much to address this. It still leaves the problem of dull teaching and switched-off students at early secondary level, as well as the problem of a growing class divide – independent schools and suburban schools are keeping their languages up, while schools in poorer areas are dropping them.

The best thing a parent can do is to encourage their children to take exchange visits or other trips abroad, in order to see what speaking another language is really all about, and to find a good tutor. It is definitely worth persevering. One Parisian mother, married to an Englishman and living in the UK, struggled for years to keep up her children's two languages. But it was not until the eldest was 17 and doing work experience in Europe that she understood that being bilingual was not only a huge personal asset, but also a lot of fun.

READERS' ADVICE

It's true that more people than ever are learning English. They know it opens doors, enables them to communicate with people from different backgrounds, improves their understanding of the world, enhances their job prospects, and increases their chances of travelling in connection with their work.

But all these advantages are just as valid for English speakers of foreign languages. If we expect other people to speak our language all the time, we hand them a critical advantage. As they range between two languages and two cultures, we condemn ourselves to seeing the world through monolingual, often monocultural eyes.

Tim Unwin, Professor of French, University of Bristol; President, Association of University Heads and Professors of French

More than 20 years after I learnt French at school, the UK company I work for merged with a French company and I now speak on the phone with colleagues in French more days than not. Your daughter should not just be thinking in the short term.

GRAHAM MACDONALD

Stevenage

Learning a foreign language can never be a waste of time. It gives an added insight into the English language and shows how linguistic links can be made.

Pete Moore, London

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 27 January, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to h.wilce @btinternet.com. Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser

NEXT WEEK'S QUANDARY

'My new school does almost nothing to help its sixth formers apply for university. Pupils have no records of achievement, do no practice interviews, and get little help with their UCAS personal statements. Yet my previous school did all these things, and I feel sure our sixth formers must be disadvantaged against students from schools like this. Am I right? Does it make a difference? And how can I encourage the school to beef up this side of things, when it's not my job and nothing to do with me?'

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