A bleak outlook for language teaching

1st March 1996 at 00:00
A foreign language for all" was the slogan in the 1970s. The campaign was won. "A foreign language for all through to Standard grade" has been a more recent aspiration. Does this signal an enthusiastic acceptance by pupils, parents and the general public? Does the study of foreign languages in British schools enjoy the same status as the study of English in mainland Europe? I am afraid the answer to these questions may be "no".

Young, and some not so young, people in the rest of Europe appreciate the advantages of understanding English, particularly in countries whose language is confined to a small population. Economic constraints force these smaller speech communities to rely on English. Education systems take account of this linguistic imperative. Over much of Eastern Europe teachers of Russian are being retrained as teachers of English. In Western Europe, in at least 80 per cent of cases, the first foreign language studied by pupils is English and, just as in Scotland so all over Europe, the teaching of foreign languages begins ever earlier in the school career.

Some countries appear to attach more importance to training primary staff to teach foreign languages. Italian primary teachers from Reggio Emilia who are converting to the teaching of English receive 500 hours of training, some of it in Britain. In Scotland, the equivalent figure is 160 hours with no travel abroad. Is our training so much more intensive or does this disparity represent a lack of commitment in Government policy?

A relatively recent but rapidly expanding development in mainland Europe concerns the use of a foreign language to teach other subjects, sometimes the whole curriculum, from primary through to secondary, vocational and higher education. Inspired by the French immersion schools that have existed in Canada for 30 years, this scheme is being actively promoted by the Council of Europe and the European Union. In 1992, a commission set up by the Dutch ministry of education recommended that Dutch should cease to enjoy the status of "sole official teaching medium". Schools, colleges and universities were to be free to choose whatever language they deemed appropriate. In most cases if Dutch was dropped English would take its place.

In a current EU-funded programme involving Finland and Strathclyde University, I have primary generalists, secondary maths teachers, science teachers, psychology teachers, further education teachers of nursing, electrical engineering, automobile engineering, marketing. Similar experiments are happening all over Europe. There are problems with the linguistic proficiency of a small percentage of teachers, but these will be overcome with time.

It should be noted that many European students have been coming to British universities to do part of their undergraduate courses here, partially funded by EU schemes such as Erasmus and Lingua. Their number has far outstripped the number of British students going in the opposite direction. What is particularly disappointing is the insularity or the insecurity of British students, who appear unable to cope with the idea of studying in a foreign language. (This should not surprise us; even future secondary foreign language teachers are trained in English in some British institutions.) The ultimate irony is that in many cases British students could study in English in these overseas countries alongside the natives of those countries for whom English as a second language is the medium of instruction.

Some responsibility for the immobility of Scottish students must lie with the relatively rigid structures of many higher education courses and the seeming reluctance of some lecturers and trainers to facilitate flexibility. They could do more to promote the European credit transfer scheme, for example, which systematises recognition of study abroad.

A bleak outlook for foreign language teaching in Britain? As a Francophile and a former trainer of teachers of French, I am saddened by the possibility that, in spite of the indisputable efforts of language teachers, foreign language learning here may become less popular as children and adults increasingly realise that they can get by in Europe using English. However, I must admit that the probable advent of a single lingua franca throughout Europe will represent a major step forward on a practical basis. How this step can be reconciled with the promotion of widespread foreign language learning in Britain I cannot see.

Paul Curtis is a languages lecturer at Strathclyde University.

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