Philip Hensher: How can you learn a language and not speak it?

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The Independent Online

About 25 years ago, I remember cowering in a corridor, waiting for my time to come. The one before me came out, relief all over his face, followed by the examiner, gesturing me into the torture chamber. I went in and sat down. He looked at his piece of paper, made a few notes, looked up, and began. "Si vous avez le choix," he began, "preferez-vous faire des courses dans les petits magasins ou dans un supermarché?"

The foreign language oral exam must be, without a doubt, the most widely dreaded of all exam experiences. Personally, my recurrent nightmare relating to exams tends to focus on the sudden expectation that I have to take maths A-level, but from my experience, the exams which cause most anticipatory terror are all oral language tests.

I'm obviously not alone in this. The Government has just proposed that the oral test be dropped from language GCSEs, since the mere requirement is acting as a deterrent to children. If there is no formal test of children's speaking ability, it suggests, then languages at GCSE will become much more popular. In place of the test, speaking ability is to be assessed by the teacher based on contributions in class. The numbers taking the GCSE, currently in freefall, will be halted and may even begin to rise. On the other hand, you might think, they probably won't be able to speak the language after doing an exam in it.

I have nothing in particular against course assessment, but it is difficult to see that the loss of a short oral test can mean anything other than a lowering of the GCSE's standards. An oral test at this level means that the student has to have the ability to enter into some measure of simple conversation in the foreign language. Oral ability in class may mean any one of a number of things which fall short of this simple level of achievement; it may mean remembering items of vocabulary, reading out sentences from a piece of paper, putting together oral sentences from a given template. If none of these things are done well, they will still attract some kind of mark. Even if they are done well, they may not show that a student can speak a foreign language to any degree at all.

Ability in and knowledge of a foreign language can, of course, be measured before the student can actually say anything meaningful in that language. I've recently started learning Arabic, and am struck by the long and sometimes faintly abstruse lists of nouns which conventional language learning hands over before the learner starts being able to put together anything resembling a sentence of his own.

That knowledge could be tested and awarded a grade, but it would be completely idle to think that there would be anything of any external value in the certification. In my view, there is not only no point at all in awarding any kind of public certificate to a command of language which falls short of simple conversation. More than that, it would be completely improper to do so.

For generations, the English approach to language teaching has been heavily denigrated, in that it focused mainly on reading and writing skills at the expense of speech. The A-level of 25 years ago regularly produced students, like me, who could confidently write an essay or get through a novel by Flaubert, but who tended to break into blushing confusion when asked an elementary question by a stranger.

The abandonment of the oral exam can only be a lowering of the standards required for a foreign language exam, and a further step away from the ideal of producing people who can actually talk to a foreign person in their own language. If a public qualification cannot stretch to asking a student to talk, in however simple terms, in a foreign language, then you have to ask what possible use the qualification is. In what sense is this a qualification in a foreign language at all?

And the pandering to what kids are prepared to do, or to what the thickest of them find just too hard, disgracefully neglects the requirement to demonstrate to them what they can do. Foreign language exams, in particular, ought to have somewhat the aspect of a driving test. They are proper skills to master. A student ought to be clear, at the end of a course, what he can now confidently do. Classroom assessment will never confirm to a student that he can now speak French, but a formal oral exam certainly will - there's a reason why, almost alone among one's schoolday exams, the oral exam remains vivid in memory.

You came out, relieved, and with the confirmation that, after all, you could speak French up to a point. As it happens, to this day no Frenchman has ever opened a conversation with me by inquiring whether I prefer to shop in small shops or in a supermarket, but you never know; that day may yet come. And when it does, I will be prepared.