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

Notebook

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This digital agency is passionate about helpin...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Exhibition Content Developer

£19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in South Kensington, this prestigi...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established managed services IT...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Advisor is r...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Bahrainis on an anti-government protest in May  

Hussain Jawad's detainment and torture highlights Britain's shameless stance on Bahraini rights

Emanuel Stoakes
August 1923: Immigrants in a dining hall on Ellis Island, New York.  

This election demonises the weakest

Stefano Hatfield
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003