Bum rap for languages

6th June 2008 at 01:00
It is disconcerting to see the Scottish Funding Council deflect all responsibility for the state of language teaching onto schools rather than universities, in its report last week
It is disconcerting to see the Scottish Funding Council deflect all responsibility for the state of language teaching onto schools rather than universities, in its report last week.

If the universities were serious about their commitment to raising standards of foreign language education to European levels, they would work on reinstating competence in a foreign language as part of their minimum entrance requirements. This was abandoned by Scottish universities a generation ago and, only this month, the University of Cambridge misguidedly followed suit.

The universities should also cast a critical eye at the way they teach foreign languages. It is they, after all, who give tomorrow's language teachers their intellectual formation. A high level of practical competence in the target language, and familiarity with the culture in which it is used, are necessary qualifications for a good language teacher, but are not sufficient conditions.

A language teacher's job is teaching language. As a physics teacher needs to understand physics, a language teacher needs a thorough grounding in the way languages work and in the functions they perform in society. Every time language teachers design a language class, they implicitly activate the model of language they have absorbed during their own intellectual training.

This model may be a steam-driven one they have developed by the seat of their pants. Alternatively, it could be an efficient, sophisticated one, developed after the sort of reading and reflection which is normally associated with university degree courses.

A cursory glance at the staff lists and syllabuses published by the modern languages departments in Scottish universities will show that language and linguistic studies have disappeared more or less entirely from view, behind literary studies, gender studies, and so on.

These subjects are all highly important, but they assist only indirectly in the formation of good language teachers.

Anthony Lodge, Schoolhouse, Carnbee by Anstruther.

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