The country where no language is foreign

When even toddlers in France can speak more than their mother tongue, this aptitude has a lot to tell us in monolingual Britain

Gillian Harvey

Here in France, I am often struck by the number of people who claim to "speak only a little English", or who apologise for themselves before abandoning their mother tongue and launching into complex explanations of bank accounts, recipes or directions to obscure places across town.

I can't help but feel that if my French was half as good as their English, I would class myself as fluent. Although my grasp of the language has come on in leaps and bounds since I moved here in 2007, I have found building on my lapsed GCSE knowledge somewhat challenging.

When looking at the French curriculum, it is easy to see why so many people I encounter display such an aptitude: acquiring a foreign language is of the utmost importance here, and time is dedicated to it in the curriculum from Day 1.

Like many Brits, when I look back at my GCSE French - an exam taken when I had no intention of even visiting France, let alone living here - I wish I had a) worked harder and b) pursued it further. But even in the distant past of my school days, languages were an unpopular subject and one that many children, and parents, didn't take seriously.

French lessons at my school were also unappealing. Unfortunately, grammar has not been taught in much detail at UK primaries until very recently, and modern foreign language (MFL) teachers are often forced to go over the nuts and bolts in order to enable children to grasp how languages correlate with each other. Explaining past participles to a set of disaffected teenagers must be an uphill struggle to say the least.

This is one area where MFL teachers in France have an advantage: grammar is taught inside out as part of the French curriculum. And because being able to identify the function of a word or phrase within a sentence is key to learning another language, the fact that pupils arrive at their MFL lessons already equipped with a confident understanding of grammar gives them a clear advantage.

Born linguists

Moreover, it is certainly true that language acquisition is easier when you are younger. I am reminded of this when my (fluent) four-year-old corrects my pronunciation, or when my two-year-old twins swap effortlessly between French and English words, despite the fact that they are speaking only at a very basic level.

In French schools, too, language learning starts young. It is part of the formal curriculum from the moment children begin school at age 6, but in addition many maternelle (nursery) schools include foreign languages on their timetable, whether through reading stories or teaching them in a more formal way.

One reason why students in the UK fail to pursue languages at a more advanced level is because they see them as "hard" subjects, and feel they can gain better grades more easily elsewhere. That is why I applaud the new stress on MFL in primaries. Surely this move will mean that pupils acquire languages more naturally, and therefore find the thought of carrying on with them all the way to university and beyond more appealing.

Another key difference in France is the importance placed on learning languages: they are an integral part of children's final qualification, the baccalaurat (known as "le bac"). Although there are several different types of qualification - including scientific, literary and the more practical technologique - the final exam includes at least two foreign languages, with an option for more. As le bac is graded as a whole, failing to achieve good marks in these compulsory modules affects the overall value of the qualification. This weighting means that languages are treated by pupils as being vitally important. Dropping them is not an option.

But although France seems to have succeeded in making foreign languages a core part of the majority of children's learning, it is harder to see how the uptake of MFL could be improved in the UK, where students take fewer subjects the further they progress through education. Making languages compulsory would not fit this model.

It is significant, also, that the first MFL that French pupils learn is often English: a universal language that we are lucky enough to claim as our mother tongue. It is easy to see why parents and pupils in the UK often feel that learning another language will not necessarily be beneficial in the long run.

Despite the fact that a global community needs linguists, it is hard to know what to say to a pupil who turns around and asks: "Why should I bother to learn French? I'm never going to go to France." And although I marvel at the level of English reached by the average person in France, the fact that our European counterparts tend to speak English so well is unfortunately another nail in the coffin of MFL in the UK.

That said, there is no shortage of adults, myself included, who look back to their school days and wish they had tried a little harder to master the lingo. Perhaps the children now starting primary school will turn the tide in the future. They may never move to France, but the skills involved in learning a language will stay with them for life.

Gillian Harvey is a teacher and freelance writer based in France

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Gillian Harvey

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