Communication breakdown

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Communicative methods - using ready-made phrases to hold a conversation - have dominated languages teaching since the 1980s, at the expense of studying grammar and building sentences.

Yet the hoped-for wave of enthusiasm for languages in schools has not materialised, nor has the hoped-for flowering of a generation of 16-year-olds able to discuss much more than the price of a Coke in the cafes of Paris and Madrid.

On the other hand, part of the traditional justification for languages in the school curriculum - as a discipline in which young minds are trained to think and understand - has been lost, and with possible dire consequences for the place of language teaching in secondary education.

Many, if not most, language teachers think it is time to reassess the profession's priorities in four key areas: * The abandonment of the drive for Languages for All in our schools. Extensive knowledge of a foreign language is not an essential skill for most of us, and the compulsory teaching of languages only breeds the "I hate French" attitude.

* An acknowledgement that it might be the low level of intellectual challenge of current GCSE courses that is persuading able pupils to choose more stimulating subjects at A-level.

* An end to the sterile, competence-based, speaking-by-numbers approach which makes a virtue of discouraging pupils from thinking about language, and where achievement is falsely measured in terms of the ability to mug up situation-specific phrases and regurgitate them as learned, with little regard for the need to create and manipulate language.

* A recognition that the basic, largely transactional, communicative skills, which pupils are encouraged to see as the extent of their ambitions in the subject by the age of 15, can later be acquired more effectively (arguably), and more efficiently (certainly) by the adult learner in a few months. This will be made increasingly easier by self-access, computer-aided multi-media materials. Indeed, if there has been a revolution in language learning in recent years then this, not communicative classroom teaching, is it.

This is not a plea for less foreign language teaching in schools but for a redeployment of effort and a more rounded approach. Communicative methodology has brought a welcome change of emphasis in keeping with the growth of international travel and communications, but its place is working alongside more traditional cognitive learning methods and as part of a larger cultural and educational brief.

Paul Durrant is a writer of language textbooks who has taught modern languages for 30 yearsIf you have a strong opinion about a curriculum issue, write to Brendan O'Malley, secondary curriculum editor, TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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