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Nation of monoglots

Highers are increasingly unreliable as an indication of first-year students' abilities, according to the head of Strathclyde University's modern languages department.

"I don't wish to be pessimistic but, to be utterly candid, it's a growing problem," said Joe Farrell. "The gap between what we thought we could expect and what we are getting in terms of knowledge is quite wide. Highers are no guide to the knowledge of the students. We have had to go to a lower starting point. We have got to the situation where we can look at the school the student has previously been to, and that knowledge gives us a better idea of what to expect."

Professor Farrell also believes that students arrive at university ill-prepared for the less structured demands of higher education. "I do find that pupils' willingness to be active and not passive is declining and diminishing. They are accustomed to a situation where they are doing multiple choice, where they are being told what to do and are continually guided."

He said students struggled with language because learning by rote had become unfashionable. "There are some things that have to be learned and have to be known; I don't think other countries have the same difficulties with this." He said first-years often struggled to construct paragraphs and sentences, even in English. "I consider the apostrophe a lost cause." He also disagreed with the widespread perception that oral skills had improved as written skills had deteriorated. "Quite bluntly, this is not something that is apparent."

Professor Farrell believes students in Scotland are no less able than those elsewhere, but said: "Our expectation of students is too low. We have assumed that if there is a difficulty, this is not something to be overcome, it is something to be avoided."

He also believes that falling numbers of students taking languages at school could damage the country as a whole.

"It's a catastrophe for us in a knowledge economy and global society to be the one little nation on the fringes of Europe increasingly dependent on our own language."

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