A tongue-tied nation

19th December 1997 at 00:00
John Nolan warns that poor English skills mean other languages cannot be learnt

Language, both mother tongue and foreign, is going through a crisis in schools. Grades and labels are subjectively arrived at, as one glance at the language assessment criteria in national documents will confirm. It is also my view, admittedly subjective but supported by more than 25 years of German teaching and 23 years of national examination marking, setting, moderating and examining, that too many pupils lack basic knowledge, accuracy and fluency in spoken and written English and show corresponding weaknesses in their acquisition of German.

Too many cannot read aloud with appropriate expression or understanding. Indeed students often lack the skill to pronounce everyday words correctly or to adhere to even the most basic rules of punctuation. Since this skill is deficient in English, it compounds difficulties for a German teacher. Too often pupil awareness of language rules is minimal.

Admittedly this is addressed in the 5-14 papers but there is a huge and growing chasm between the fine words of national documents and the reality of mixed-ability groups. Why should so many pupils have only the vaguest notion of the functions and forms of verbs, adjectives, tenses, subjects? Many of them say and write "I seen", or "Me and my friend done", because they have little concept of tense or word relationships. Because of this they are less receptive to the added demands German imposes on them.

While few teachers would wish to restore arbitrary tasks of learning by heart, we have sorely neglected a useful teaching and learning aid. Too many pupils are reluctant to learn and commit to memory - words, number bonds, language skills, tables, formulae. Put starkly, how can one speak German without having learnt the necessary words?

Pupils are no longer accustomed to this learning demand. The irony is that I see no improvement in the very skills which are the crux of resource-based learning. Too many pupils are (almost) unable or excruciatingly slow and inaccurate in their use of a simple dictionary. Why should this be so after 7-10 years of schooling? Personal knowledge is often incredibly inadequate and seriously inhibits the learning of German. I have met first-year pupils who, in English, cannot list the four seasons, or the 12 months in the correct order, or tell the time.

Active learning, the essential effort a pupil must make to relate and anchor newly assimilated material, seems to be a dying tradition. Children see little need for this. After all, information is doubtless available from a list , a computer memory, a calculator, the infinitely patient teacher? This discourages the independent learning we all so earnestly promote. Daily we see the consequences: inarticulate pupils, badly expressed meaning, restricted register.

My difficulty as an experienced German teacher is that my observed concerns are not reflected in national examinations. We often hear from government sources and from the Scottish Qualifications Authority about the success, in quality and quantity, of Standard grade results. But in addition to the investigation and course work that can be artificially "enhanced" by a productive parent, or even, apparently, bought in parts of middle-class Scotland, it is no great achievement to continue to produce or even to increase "high" scores when using essentially subjective criteria and norm-related assessment. In recent years the exam bodies have tinkered even with Higher German to render it, in their words to me, "more accessible". (Not simpler - such an acknowledgement could threaten the whole edifice.) I suppose that if everyone within this whole educational establishment (schools, government, SQA, HMI, councils) accepts the validity of national examinations then perhaps my concerns don't matter. But if an external agency (a multinational company, a European agency, international academic research) reveals, for example, that language skills and knowledge are not as good as the results suggest - in other words, that the emperor has no clothes - then our examination standards quickly become questionable.

I recently read what a 16-year-old German girl wrote in English in 15 minutes on an unprepared topic, during an application interview for a long stay in a Scottish school. None of our pupils could have come within miles of similar fluency and accuracy in German. (Very many would not have achieved the same fluency and accuracy in English). In other words, Credit passes at Standard grade and As and Bs at Higher can, with very few exceptions, flatter to deceive. Contact with German pupils shows (unfortunately) the actual language standard of our pupils.

Experienced teachers of German must face some unpleasant facts. First, the challenge of achieving practical competence in written and spoken German is rejected by all but a diminishing number of pupils. Second, the languages for all policy in S3-S4 neither motivates new recruits nor increases further German learning in S5. Third, learning by heart, listening skills, extended reading, sensitivity to language, precision of expression, sophisticated social skills, all qualities essential to the successful learning of a language, are precisely those to which pupils are less and less accustomed. If there is one measure that could help us tackle the malaise in English and foreign language teaching it would be to transfer a huge proportion of learning support staff and resources to primary schools which are crying out for such support. Then the basic literacy on which successful foreign language learning depends might, just might, be attainable.

John Nolan is principal teacher of German at St Columba's High School, Dunfermline.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today