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Au revoir, le francais?

resources | Published in TES magazine on 24 February, 2012 | By: Abigail Parrish

Use logic not tradition to decide which languages to offer

French has always been the main foreign language offered in British schools - it accounts for 48 per cent of GCSE language entries - and in many this is the only reason it is still on the timetable. Yet there are so many more reasons for learning a language and for teaching one.

Non-linguistic arguments include geography: if you are on the south coast, near to the major holiday ports, for example, then French does make sense, but for eastern England, countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia are closer. In fact, as far back as 1949, it was suggested that schools in the North East should teach Scandinavian languages. If there are easy transport links from your region, there will also be business links and employers may be keen to support local schools in teaching the language of their trading partners.

Thinking linguistically, also consider whether learners can make quick progress. If they have to spend weeks learning complex writing systems, spelling rules or grammar before beginning to see results, pupils may switch off. French, with its silent letters and non-phonetic spelling, may not suit your pupils - especially if they are lower-attaining or have poor literacy. German, while sharing much of its linguistic heritage with English, has a notoriously complicated grammar, which can make it tough as a first foreign language.

On the other hand, a language like Dutch, which is closely related to English, allows beginners to enjoy early success: there are many cognates, spelling is phonetic and the grammar is comparatively simple. Rather than tying themselves up in grammatical knots or struggling to remember which endings should be pronounced and which are silent, students could be confidently reading texts, translating unfamiliar words and generating their own language within a few lessons. If you have a large percentage of pupils with English as an additional language, a language close to their own tongue may offer the same sense of progress.

With so many schools now becoming academies, the time seems ripe to reconsider our choices. If schools are teaching a language simply because they have always done so, perhaps we are missing a chance to offer students something different and improve their experiences of language learning.

If students enjoy themselves and feel a sense of achievement, they are more likely to learn other languages in the future, retaining the skills and enthusiasm we pass on to them at school.

Abigail Parrish teaches Dutch and French at Havelock Academy in Grimsby

What else?

Read Mark Twain’s outburst on the German language at

Be adventurous with your MFL offerings: andyholland has shared an introduction to Japanese and a dice game to help students create simple sentences in Dutch.

Simplify German by showing students its similarities to English with MrsAThomas’ handy worksheets.

Find all links and resources at

In the forums

There is trouble in the MFL forum: one teacher is worried by her school’s plan to phase out German. Have you got any advice on how she can stop this happening?

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5 average rating

Comment (4)

  • I agree that not all schools should offer the same languages, but that does make it very difficult for pupis moving schools.

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    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    25 February, 2012


  • The biggest issue is having the supply of trained teachers to teach such subjects... and of course, thence comes the vicious circle.

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    1 March, 2012


  • Since when is French a non-phonetic spelling language? It has rules of pronunciation, and a few exceptions, but it is categorised as a phonetic spelling writing system.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    7 March, 2012


  • Clearly French IS a non-phonetic language. If it were a language with phonetic spelling one would expect the same pronunciation in, foe example, both halves of the infinitive 'chercher' , the finite verb 'est' would have the same pronunciation as the noun 'est' or the first three letters of the adjective 'estival', 'août' and 'aoûtien' would have the same sound in them. This is not the case and a myriad other examples are there to be cited.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    12 March, 2012

    joseph rowntree

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