Caught in the crush

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Diana Kavanagh looks at the real reasons why UK schools struggle to produce the achievements in language learning that Germany can boast of

I was on holiday in France when I read a feature in the Daily Telegraph on "Why have the British become so bad at learning foreign languages?" A graph showed a huge drop in take-up of modern languages at A-level, along with reminders of the alarming findings of the Nuffield Inquiry and results from a specially commissioned Gallup survey. But the facts were not new to me and I welcome the public concern they may arouse.

What does surprise me is that no one has pointed out the effect that curriculum time has on the learning of a language in our schools. I presume most schools fulfil the requirements for the allocation of curriculum time in modern languages. In my school, a specialist language college, ours is deemed to be generous. This academic year I have won another long-fought battle and gained one extra period per fortnight in Years 8 and 9.

How much language learning time do pupils receive at our school? In Years 7 to 9 all pupils study two languages and get one hour 40 minutes each language each week. At GCSE this increases to two hours 30 minutes. How does this compare with the rest of Europe? The answer, not surprisingly, is very badly. When I went to Munich with some of our Year 9 and 10 pupils, including my own son, I calculated that his exchange partner had done more hours of English in his first year of secondary school than my son had for German up to his last term in his fourth year. You may say that is because our students do two languages, but in the German exchange school all students do three. The figures in our partner schools in France and Italy tell a similar tale.

Our students discover that not only are their exchange partners extremely competent in English, but so are their families, who, keen to show off their proficiency in English, allow our pupils even less of an opportunity to practise. It is frequently put to us that we are deficient in our acquisition of foreign languages compared with the Germans. We should surely examine their system and look closely at their curriculum time allocation to put our situation to rights.

When it is time to opt, our teenagers are not stupid. They know the competition they are up against. They know that every point counts at GCSE and at A-level and increases their chances of a university place. Why risk opting for a subject where their chances of a good grade are statistically proven to be much lower? Good students can get a B at A-level in English, media studies or business studies, to name but a few, yet struggle for two years to scrape a D or an E in French having had to work harder at this than their other subjects. Fewer and fewer of even our most able linguists seem to be opting for more than one language at GCSE. This means our most able linguists will study only one language at A-level and only one at university. I would be interested to see some comparative statistics in the study and take-up of modern languages between state and private schools. What proportion of curriculum time is given in the private sector? The Daily Telegraph's Gallup result indicated as its most striking finding the relationship between speaking another language and social class. As take-up of modern languages at A-level has dropped so drastically, what is the proportion of private school entries compared with state schools? What is the effect of this on setting the standard and the accessibility of the papers? How much time is spent in the target language country by students from private schools compared with state schools?

Two other factors that concern me particularly are the demands of teaching languages and the nature of our language exams. It is increasingly acknowledged thatteaching languages is extremely demanding. We have moved from rote-learning of conjugations and perfecting the written word to focusing on listening and speaking and would love to raise the standard of written expression and the awareness of grammar before A-level study begins, but in the short time available it is impossible to do more than to touch on basic elements.

We have to be technically up-to-date to use recording equipment and ICT and skilful in managing the stress of a subject which is intellectually demanding for students. We have to act all the time: typical exam questions are "Imagine you are in a cafeshopgaragehotel in France. Your teacher will play the part of your pen friendthe waiterthe policeman." We have to organise visits and exchanges abroad. We are expected to teach normal class sizes, even though one quarter of marks at key stage 3 and GCSE and one third of marks at A-level are based on one-to-one oral exams.

Last academic year I was given three extra free periods a fortnight to run the modern languages faculty and the French and Italian departments. As well as running a department of nine in four languages, I taught 350 students each week. That meant 350 homeworks and exercise books to mark each week as well as 350 exams to set and mark, reports to write, and parents' evening interviews to conduct. All this was on top of the normal preparation and teaching time. And then there were the orals to hear, and my tutor group's needs to attend to. With such a schedule, how could I possibly give sufficient confidence-boosting to each individual? How could I motivate the disaffected, value each pupil's efforts or properly keep up with new developments and be aware of all the different criteria for assessment?

When putting in requests for timetabling of mock GCSE, A-level or internal KS3 exams, my department has been described as "exam happy". Well I am not at all happy about the number or nature of our exams or the volume of work they create for the teachers and the administrative nightmare of setting up listening and oral exams.

We assess our students in four separate skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. All Listening assessments require tapes and silent locations. Speaking exams require the teacher to examine each student one-to-ne for between 10 minutes and 30 minutes. The exams have to be recorded on tapes for the exam boards. And what of the exams themselves? Are we happy with these? Statistics would prove the contrary. Why has there been a drop in modern languages as a per cent of total A-levels from 16 per cent in 1938 to 5 per cent in 1999? Why are languages perceived as harder than other subjects?

The exams are tricky. Higher Level papers at GCSE and A-levels require a high degree of deductive skills. Bilingual students who are fluent in the language find them hard while clever students who are not necessarily the most fluent or able linguists cope with them well. The exam boards' policy is that it is not sufficient for the candidate to understand or translate the exact meaning of the foreign language in Reading or Listening, they must also be able to operate a high level of cognitive and deductive skills. Why not sufficient? At GCSE these candidates are just 16 years old.

At A-level most of the questions in Reading and Listening are inaccessible to the DE candidates, who become increasingly dejected. The A-level exams are too long and too hard and now the dictionary is being removed. Would you attempt to write a letter in a foreign language without a dictionary? We need to look to Europe and examine how and why other countries are more successful at teaching languages, and follow their good example.

Diana Kavanagh is head of modern languages at St John the Baptist specialist language college, Surrey

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