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Spring the words anew

Seasonal buzzwords must include 'action' says Steven Fawkes

Spring approaches; things warm up; the season changes and the buzzing begins. All sorts of things start to stir around us once again, not all pleasant, and some audible and irritating disproportionately to their size or import. For those concerned with languages, buzzwords are emerging from official publications and announcements at the onset of the European Year of Languages (EYL). In Scotland "entitlement" has emerged from its cocoon. Arising from the report of the Action Group, it is a word with subtle inferences:

* Where does entitlement end and compulsion begin?

* Does this entitlement imply some element of choice? (You are entitled to this, but you do not have to...). If so, how does this improve the standing of the subject or its position of comparative weakness in some institutions' timetables?

* Does entitlement work in only one direction? If learners are entitled to certain experiences and time allocation for their language learning, is there not some sort of balancing commitment in return?

* And what, or where, are the teacher's entitlements in this equation?

The teaching of modern languages is inherently different from other curriculum areas, with its diverse strands of language acquisition: linguistic analysis, function, cultural awareness, communication, performance and motivation (the theme of the Language World Conference next month) and teachers of languages have some highly specific needs in terms of linguistic and cultural updating, as well as more generic professional development. This is often available through external agencies and associations (such as the Association for Language Learning), but needs designated time as well as commitment.

The buzzword from mainland Europe is "pluringualism": a necessary skill for the individual European citizen. Apparently the UK, as a whole, lags behind other countries of the Union in the proportion of its citizens with command of more than one language. This raises the issue of the general view our society has of languages and their status. Such reports are not uncommon, and yet neitherthe British press nor the politicians seem bothered by such broad assertions, almost as if this is an acceptable state of affairs.

The various EYL launches in the UK have heard the good wishes and intentions of ministers supporting the aims of the year, certainly in terms of raising awareness of the importance of languages to our society. Such talk is pleasing and helpful so far as it goes, yet some of the things we eagerly want these decision-makers to bring to fruition in the new season remain unformed.

In England and Wales we still await the full emergence of the buzzword we have long nurtured and expected: "action". The Nuffield Languages Inquiry advocated the creation of a co-ordinated policy across the educational sectors and beyond into lifelong learning; in responses to the report the creation of an Action Group was suggested as a powerful start to this process under the immediate aegis of the European Year of Languages.

For the time being, though, what we have seen in the Government response to the report is still somewhat wintry, and rather lethargic, mostly describing initiatives already in place. These are, of course, very welcome in the situations they are designed to serve, but the fact that they do already exist, and that the situation described in the report still pertains, suggests that they are simply not enough to help in the wider picture and the longer run.

The major issues of ethos and standing require action from all sides of society, not just from those of us in languages education, so that languages are seen less as something exotic, continental or problematic and more as something perfectly normal that we should be involved in.

The best news from all this springtime buzzing is that dialogue is open, and that willing partners are out and about. Still more are needed to join in the seasonal stirrings and to grab a piece of the action.

What will you do for languages in 2001?

Steven Fawkes is president of the Association for Language Learning, 150 Railway Terrace, Rugby, Warwickshire CV2 3HN. Tel: 01788 546443. E-mail: Web:

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