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Languages and the grammar of failure

It was only a matter of time. After the debacle over mathematics attainment, the second most elitist area of the erstwhile senior secondary curriculum, modern languages has now joined the clamour over standards. And the scapegoat - sadly but not surprisingly - is mixed-ability teaching. The context this time is Glasgow City Council, a surprising bedfellow of the Scottish Office in rolling back the years towards setting and streaming.

That language learning is less than perfect in Scotland will come as no surprise to anyone. Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, was lamenting the general state of language learning in Scotland at the end of the same week as the Glasgow story broke. It was ever thus, the cynics might say, but the issue demands a closer look and a more intelligent analysis than it appears to have had in Glasgow. If standards in modern language learning are indeed lower than we should expect, the one thing we can say with certainly is that we can't blame the teachers. Modern languages teachers were often criticised in the past for elitism, only wanting "academic" pupils to do their subjects and arguing that the "less able" would be better off doing more English. They stuck to the old view that grammar was the key and that reading and writing (translations preferably) would produce linguists.

But no more. In recent years, the Scottish Association of Language Teachers has fought a commendable battle to have modern languages as part of the core curriculum all the way to Standard grade. Methods have been revolutionised, courses are lively and interesting and most of the teaching is done in the language itself - a far cry from the dry-as-dust grammar book.

As my colleague John MacBeath has reminded us, every human is born with an innate capability of learning some 3,000 languages. So where is the link between "intelligence" and the facility to learn languages? Will setting mean that academic pupils go back to a traditional diet, pass their Highers, be able to read and write the language, but like me be unable to hold a meaningful conversation with anyone?

Was language learning really so good in the old senior secondaries? And did it happen at all in the junior secondaries? Is mixed-ability teaching really the villain of the piece? I would like to suggest a number of causes for what is being described as a crisis in language learning. First, there is the issue of political will. The primary modern foreign languages project has been a limited success. On the plus side, my son started German in primary 5. He has enjoyed it and learns a little each day. He is nowhere near fluent, nor will he be by primary 7. But, he is positively disposed to language learning as a result of his experience, and will, we hope, feel no resistance to languages in the secondary school. On the minus side, if fluency were the real aim, he would have started in primary 1, or even pre-five. Here we may have much to learn from Gaelic-medium units, and the whole Gaelic pre-five movement.

Second, there is the issue of orthodoxy. Once there were language labs in every secondary school. Then, it was decided - by whom? - that there should be PALE (Perimeter Audio Learning) systems. Now these may well be a good thing, but the key is that these changes were made, wholesale, like individualised learning in maths, without the true involvement of the teachers. Where they work well they are a great resource. But there are still many classrooms where the potential of PALE is not being fully utilised. Third, there is the issue of resources. There is a good case for language being treated as a practical subject, with a maximum class size of 20.

Finally, the biggest disincentive has always been the fact that English is the lingua franca, it is the key to the global culture of pop music, film and computers. Not even the explosion in holidays abroad has dented its supremacy. The issue of correct grammar is a red herring, as is the question of mixed-ability versus setting. The fundamental point is whether we really want all our young people to be fluent in another language. Whether all pupils can conjugate or use the subjunctive is immaterial.

Let's concentrate on learning and ask how we can make languages more accessible. Improving attainment for the "academic" few at the expense of the rest won't do, as the Pacific Rim countries could tell us, with their mixed-ability classes, high expectations and a political will to succeed.

Brian Boyd is the associate director of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University. He is honorary president of SALT. He writes in a personal capacity.

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