Foreign languages? Nein danke

The Government's commitment to modern language learning is ill-conceived
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The Independent Online

The school curriculum is not elastic and not everything that we might consider useful or worthwhile can be included within it. In spite of the interest and enthusiasm generated by yesterday's publication of the Nuffield Report, I believe much of the case made in defence of teaching foreign languages in schools is misguided.

The school curriculum is not elastic and not everything that we might consider useful or worthwhile can be included within it. In spite of the interest and enthusiasm generated by yesterday's publication of the Nuffield Report, I believe much of the case made in defence of teaching foreign languages in schools is misguided.

Foreign language learning is often best conducted in contexts other than in school. Research confirms that they are best learned intensively over a short period of time by learners with immediate, practical motivation. The issue of motivation is less problematic in the non-English speaking world. On account of its status as the major world language of scholarship, English is the language for non-Anglophones to learn. The hegemony of English today is really extraordinary. Even a French minister for education has decreed that English is no longer a foreign language, saying that it has become a commodity, like a computer or the internet.

Consequently, the place of modern foreign languages in the school curriculum of the English-speaking world merits a much more modest and qualified defence than much of the rather strident rhetoric to be found especially in official policy statements. In an overcrowded curriculum, we should reduce the amount of time devoted to teaching languages. Policy-makers in the UK should cease to insist that all school pupils spend five years at a subject in which some have no interest or for which they show no aptitude.

So what should these pupils be taught instead? Schools should concentrate on improving the enabling skills of literacy and numeracy and perhaps on other skills such as computing, as well as enhancing pupils' knowledge and understanding of the world. It would also be much more fruitful if schools helped young people to identify and pursue those activities (academic, sporting, artistic) in which they are likely to find fulfilment. In other words, the school could become more assertive in recovering its classical mission to be a scholé or ludus, that is, an arena for the pursuit of leisure.

Two arguments have commonly been used in defence of teaching foreign languages in school. The first is the utilitarian argument, and the second is the educational one.

According to the utilitarian argument, knowledge of foreign languages is of direct vocational and commercial usefulness. I do not deny the usefulness of mastering one of the languages of those countries to whom one is hoping to sell goods or services. Yet this knowledge cannot be said to be of utility to the majority of English speakers.

There is a conspicuous lack of hard evidence that foreign language skills will increase productivity and employment. The level of competence acquired by most young people in school would not be of great value in the workplace. After five years' study, only school leavers who are in the top 10 or perhaps 20 per cent of the ability range would have a sufficiently reliable grasp of a language, even for low-level vocational purposes. In Ireland, even those who do seek out and take jobs in areas such as telemarketing usually spend at least a year in further education courses where they engage in intensive language study.

The educational argument in defence of the place of modern foreign languages in the curriculum has several strands. The first is that through knowledge of its language we can come to understand a culture; the second is that learning foreign languages contributes to the inter-cultural aspect of civic education. These two arguments do not justify teaching foreign languages in schools because much understanding of other cultures can be acquired through English.

What I call the linguistic and psychological arguments offer stronger justification for teaching languages. According to the linguistic argument, the study of foreign languages contributes to education in language and, according to the psychological argument, learning other languages can provide enjoyment and success at learning which can enhance overall confidence.

Some practical reasons also support teaching a foreign language to children in school. Study of languages at school equips a minority with significant competence and it can provide a sound basis for the development of future competence in others. There are good grounds to believe that the learning of one foreign language will provide a model of language learning which may help in the study of other languages.

By making a skill or area of knowledge and understanding compulsory, a society also signals how seriously it takes its obligation to provide the opportunity to learn it and the obligation on young people to do so. There is a basis in social justice for making educationally enriching activities compulsory. On this basis, a strong case can be made that every young person should be entitled to the opportunity to learn one or more foreign languages.

But after they have had a year's exposure to it, we should not continue to force the study of a foreign language upon young people who do not wish to persevere with it either from lack of interest or lack of ability.

Educational policy-makers can overlook the limits to what we can compel young people to do in school. In the Irish Republic the policy of compulsory classes in Irish demonstrates vividly how unproductive such compulsion can be. Analysis of examination performance at Irish in the Leaving Certificate suggests only a small minority achieves a significant mastery of the language after thirteen years compulsory study.

My interest in language policy was originally prompted by a perception of the folly of this policy which has served neither education nor the language. Policy-makers in the UK should learn from this experience and not force five years of foreign language study on unwilling learners. This will result only in tedium for pupils and frustration for many able and committed teachers. The decision to retain modern foreign languages in the post-2000 curriculum at Key Stages 3 and 4 is, therefore, well-meaning but ill-judged.

The author is senior lecturer at Mater Dei Institute of Education, Dublin City University. He is author of 'Why Teach Foreign Languages in Schools?', IMPACT pamphlet 5, available from the Bookshop, Institute of Education, London (020-7612-6050; e-mail: at £6.99, plus £1 p and p. A symposium on the pamphlet will be held at the Institute at 6pm on 21 June. For details ring Judy Morrison at 020-7612-6750; email: