How long before we have to shut up shop?

Languages teaching will have to be more relevant and experimental to win back teens, writes Ian Maun

So, languages are "in free fall", according to John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. GCSE results show a drop of 14.2 per cent in the number of students taking German, 13.2 per cent in those taking French, and 0.5 per cent in the numbers taking Spanish.

Dr Ellie Johnson Searle, director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, says the fall should be of concern to everyone. Concern? This is a matter for extreme alarm! Tory education spokesman David Willetts upped the scale a couple of points and described it as "shocking" - somewhere nearer the truth.

So how did we get here? Let's get it clear. Children in English schools are not taught French, German, Spanish or any other real language. They learn emasculated, cut-down versions, unrecognisable to native speakers, a version validated by QCA, Ofsted and the examination boards. In the 1960s and 1970s, linguistic research began to guide teachers towards realistic ways of teaching languages, moving away from the artificial, writing-based approaches of O and A-level. Then came the national curriculum and Ofsted.

Instead of teaching the language, teachers became concerned with whether they were "delivering" paragraph 4b of the national curriculum, and whether they had "delivered" 7W6 of the key stage 3 framework (7W6 is better known as "teaching the alphabet").

Writers of language books today include texts about, for instance, super-volcanoes, the decline of the Siberian tiger and the work of the Red Cross. Pity that the GCSE exam questions will be on how you travel to school and what you spend your pocket money on.

Faced with unreal language, boring exams and repetitive lessons, pupils began to vote with their feet. Teachers became hard to find and modern foreign languages became a shortage subject. The Government's answer? If we can't get teachers, make the subject voluntary.

Making languages voluntary was like offering a tunnel to prisoners sentenced to five years of death by boredom. The inmates poured out. In a last desperate attempt to round up some of the joyfully-fleeing escapees, the Government has set schools targets of getting 50 per cent of their pupils up to GCSE on the same tedious diet.

That diet won't work. One of the lessons of the 1970s was that language courses should suit the students. Today's GCSE students are 16 years old.

They have passed the age of sexual consent, they can marry with the permission of their parents, some are already parents. And what is a GCSE exam board's idea of an appropriate coursework topic? "My ideal school uniform".

Even the exam questions bear no relationship to reality. Take the higher level writing question: "You are ill. Your penfriend has emailed you to ask what's wrong. Answer her questions. Tell her what's wrong, when it started, how you're feeling, what you're eating, what you're drinking and what you're going to do to keep up with school work."

Anyone for that tunnel?

This is all down to the big A, of course - assessment. It's easier to assess a prescribed set of vocabulary and linguistic structures than it is to assess somebody using natural language. If the present climate doesn't change, the new key stage 2 initiative is doomed to failure. By 2010 all children will have the entitlement to learn a language and the new strategy says teachers will have to "deliver" OLIKS (oracy, literacy, intercultural understanding, knowledge of language, strategies for language learning).

The drop-out will occur at 14, because the same fossilisation of content and teaching methods will set in, prescribed from above and enforced by bureaucrats.

There is only one thing to do, and that is to return to teachers the flexibility, responsibility and professional judgment of which they have been deprived. They will then be able to devise interesting and relevant courses for today's teens. Only if the experts are given the freedom to experiment and encourage, to move and motivate, will there be hope of England halting its slide into monolingualism.

Ian Maun is subject leader for MFL at the school of education and lifelong learning, University of Exeter

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