Parents forum

I have a friend who boasts that she is responsible for destroying foreign language teaching in our schools. Admittedly, that's not quite how she puts it. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, she merely claims that she and her ilk have provided the model for learning by doing - all talk and no chalk.

It's certainly true that in my day we barely opened our mouths in the French class. What we could do, however, by Secondary 2, was read, translate and enjoy short stories by that master of the art, Guy de Maupassant.

I can still recall my first visit to France post-school and university. Even I could hear that when I said "Bonjour" it was with a strong Scots accent and I hadn't a clue what the French was for "Please can you do something about that disgusting toilet?" or "Do you have something for mouth ulcers brought on by having to eat baguettes day and night?" The phrase book was strangely unhelpful on these matters. I could ask the questions it suggested but was stumped when it came to understanding the replies.

Within a few days, though, I was able to communicate on most matters. Why? My accent may have been rusty, I may have forgotten most of the vocabulary I ever learned but one thing had stayed with me - the grammar. I had the bones of the language. I could recognise the structure of the replies.

"But," my friend argues, "we don't teach our children to speak by presenting them with a grammar book." Quite right - and on the whole we don't give birth to 11 and 12-year-olds either. That fact is surely crucial. I certainly wouldn't attempt to teach grammar to a five-year-old, but nor would I suggest that an 11-year-old be given cubes and sticks to experiment with as a means of learning long multiplication.

By this stage, an ability to grasp abstract concepts is an essential component in speeding up the learning process. Without it, a child will simply come unstuck - and what the times-tables are to arithmetic, grammar is to language learning.

My hunch is that many language teachers would endorse such a view. After all, it must be as frustrating for them as it is for the children - especially those of above-average ability - to have the learning limited in this way. So why are they stuck with this methodology?

Two main culprits suggest themselves. Nowadays, at least in my 12-year-old daughter's school, children are required to study two languages in their first two years. The result must be that there simply isn't sufficient time to study either in depth. Far better, surely, to focus on studying one language thoroughly.

Others suggest mixed-ability teaching as the bugbear, though personally I don't see why it should be any more difficult to teach languages to a mixed-ability group than it is to teach, say, physics or English. But no doubt there are those who will be keen to put me right on that.

Certainly, bearing in mind the reports on the slump in the numbers studying languages at Higher grade, we could do worse than hear the views of those at the "talk-face".

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