Mary Dejevsky: Treat a foreign language as a tool for life, not an A-level to be failed

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This year's A-level results brought the predictable breast-beating about the decline in foreign languages. They're too difficult; they're superfluous thanks to the global dominance of English, and they're a luxury that only Eton and its like can afford. But this summer there was an extra complaint – reflecting, perhaps, the growing number of bilingual and non-native English speakers in our schools – about the gulf in effort required from those who, say, speak Mandarin at home and those who've learnt it at school from scratch. Should there not be separate exams for the two groups?

In fact, universities differ in the way they treat a language A-level for admissions purposes, if the language is the applicant's own. But I appreciate the problem. Having a bilingual husband and been up against bilingual students as a student, I'm deeply envious of those with a perfect command of more than one language. However hard you work, however long you spend in another country, you will rarely be mistaken for a native. To add insult to injury, recent US research has found that bilingual people do better in certain mental tests and are less likely to develop dementia!

Be that as it may, I wonder whether more of the same is the best way to tackle our national complex about language-learning. Although my degree is in languages, I tend increasingly to the view that a foreign language is a means rather than an end and should be treated as a skill, rather than an academic subject – at least until university. As such, it could be taught, and graded, in the same way as playing a musical instrument or learning to drive. You could attain French at basic, reading, fluent or bilingual level, as you might put on a CV, rather than as a graded GCSE or A-level. Universities and employers could make a language a requirement, but it would form a category of its own.

I can already detect fury about "dumbing down" and the way in which "area studies" have been supplanting "pure" disciplines at many universities. But my very traditional course in languages incorporated much that could have been filed under Culture, History or Politics, and many a Russianist stooped to reading the longer classics in translation. If the emphasis were placed – in schools, at least – on linguistic competence, with diplomas for reaching certain milestones, language-learning might seem less forbidding.

Best of all, though, we in Britain know how to do this, because this is how our oversubscribed English-as-a-second-language courses work. The Cambridge Certificate system provides benchmarks of attainment that an 'A' at A-level in Spanish (all due respect to Tom Daley) comes nowhere near.

Painting the town any colour but red

Every now and again something comes along to restore your faith in the Great British spirit. The latest, for me, is what is turning out to be the saga of the golden pillar boxes. The Royal Mail, in an admirable stroke of patriotic entrepreneurialism, decided not just to issue special postage stamps, but to gild a pillar box in every gold medallist's home town. Small matter that Jessica Ennis's box in Sheffield was defaced within 24 hours – the Royal Mail gamely repainted it – there were soon huge queues of people wanting to be photographed alongside it. Chalk up a PR coup for Royal Mail.

Here, though, is where things began to deviate from the script. The idea met with such public delight that towns with lesser medallists spawned silver and bronze boxes overnight, as local people took the project into their own hands. From there, it was but a hop, skip and jump to customised boxes, and a call from Royal Mail for a halt to all the freelance painting, plus a large bill for extra gallons of red paint. Some ideas are just too seductive for their own good.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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