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Better ways to set the kids chattering

Modern languages are vital but they should not be classed as a school subject, says Douglas Osler

In my October column, I held a place for modern languages but balked at making it a compulsory part of the school curriculum. That came from someone who wrote the Scottish Education Department circular in the late 1980s advising that all pupils should learn a modern foreign language.

The circular drew attention to a serious issue but it is no longer the only solution. It is not that I have changed my mind about the importance of languages. We should aim to have most of the population chatter away easily in a foreign language, but classifying the chosen language as a school subject is not the only way.

Pupils should learn things in school which they see to be relevant.

Although some of our school curriculum remains a stranger to relevance, by and large youngsters can see why they should learn English, be able to count, know about science and be healthy - but they don't see the need to learn another language.

It cuts no ice with teenagers to tell them fluency in a foreign language will "enrich" their education. They are unimpressed by pious urging to become better Europeans so as to enjoy empathy with their contemporaries beyond our southern peninsula. It is manifestly untrue to claim that they need another language to find a job or that it is essential for business success.

As the businessman on one curriculum council committee observed: "Why the fuss? Hire an interpreter."

Teenagers travel widely with no use for a language other than their own and indeed take pleasure in helping those they meet to improve their English.

We cannot even use the argument that another language will give access to teenage music and culture from abroad as it is mainly in English. Parents are often unconvinced, too, that learning a second language is a sensible use of school time.

A friend attended a meeting in his school district in the United States to protest the enforced introduction of foreign languages. As one of the parents put it: "If English was good enough for the Bible, it is good enough for my kids." There sure is a case to make.

In short, worthy initiatives have not made second languages into anything other than another school burden. At the annual reception for exchange teachers, I met a harassed teacher from Germany who had come to teach her native language in a high school. She asked me what she should teach 30 boys in an S3 Foundation German class for the last two periods on a Friday afternoon. She had exhausted both world wars and was now stuck. This kind of nonsense was fair neither to her, the boys nor the other teachers who would suffer from their conscription into the language class.

The challenge is to move beyond modern languages being an unwelcome school subject and portray it, as other countries can, as a natural accomplishment. It just does not pervade our culture as it does elsewhere in Europe because of the pre-eminence of English and because of the greater proximity of people who speak in other tongues. I commented in a Danish classroom on the fluency in English of the seven-year-olds. "If you spoke Danish, you would need another language," the teacher replied. We don't have that kind of ultimatum so we need to look for other ways to make language learning more accessible.

It is not all gloom and doom. Specialist modern language teachers have responded well to the challenge of varying their teaching methods and this has succeeded with many children. The numbers of Scottish pupils with a qualification in a modern language - largely because it is compulsory, of course - has risen dramatically and stands comparison with any other European country. That is a success for teachers. But it has not produced the language-chattering classes it would be good to see. It remains something learnt in school and forgotten with most of the rest.

It would be worth while to add to the teaching of modern languages other ways of becoming proficient in a second language so that teachers could be faced with those who had chosen to learn their language in school. They would also have those who wanted to take a language to the more advanced level which would include writing.

If a standard of spoken language was set which represented the fluency expected by a Credit level student in, say, French, it should be open to pupils to demonstrate the required expertise and be credited for it without having to be compelled to take a second language in school. There are many things which can be learnt away from school to a required level but the dismay associated with language learning is a good place to start.

Pupils who grow up to be bilingual by virtue of previous residence or their parents' influence should be able to demonstrate that they have the required level and then be allowed to use their school time for other purposes. Language classes outside school, at evenings, weekends or in holiday time, through immersion courses or residential experience, would be encouraged. Satisfactory attainment there would be accepted by the school.

Many pupils would prefer to do it that way.

It should be possible to devise distance or internet learning to reach the required standard. A further experiment should be the provision of language-medium primary schools with teaching of specified parts of the curriculum by modern language specialists - possibly starting with environmental studies. There are already problems with primary teachers covering too much of the curriculum to an advanced level without exacerbating that situation by adding languages.

These alternative routes would enable pupils to achieve the required standard more quickly than in school, in an environment which many would see to be more exciting and would address the view of language learning as something associated only with school. At a conference, the German ambassador to the UK told me that in his country a certain standard had to be reached before graduation from tertiary education could take place.

Since the standard could be reached at any point up to graduation, most opted to take it at school thus seeming to remove the odour of compulsion.

A move by tertiary education in this country to have a similar requirement would be a huge boost to language learning.

Scottish education needs to find more innovative ways of encouraging learning. Fluency in a modern language is desirable and an asset but not essential. It would be a good place to start.

Douglas Osler is former senior chief inspector of education.

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