Decline and fall of languages

20th August 2004 at 01:00
"When I came to Scotland in the 1960s, not many could speak French, but those who did spoke it impeccably. Now no one can speak it."

This rather general statement was made to me a few years ago by an Edinburgh hotelier, whose multilingual talents have often amazed me at breakfast time, as I stocked up before getting on a bus and heading out to Dalkeith for yet another session at the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

There certainly has been no shortage of developments and initiatives in modern languages over the past 30 years, and it has been my lot to be involved in all of them.

In the 1970s, things began to move forward apace. The introduction of new technology, early language laboratories, film strip projectors allowed for a more audio-visual approach and innovative language teachers had soon transformed their language classrooms into a buzz of activity where the four skills of reading, speaking, listening and writing were all given equal weight.

Occasional voices in the desert warned of the need to maintain high standards in language teaching and learning. I recall HMI John Mitchell giving an excellent presentation in the 1980s on the proposals relating to Standard grade, concluding with the comment that, if rigour were not maintained, another kind of "rigor" would set in.

The new Standard grade drove the agenda for the Revised Higher and in recent years we have seen the introduction of Higher Still, a concept which has sought to put all levels, as it were, under one roof.

There have been other major initiatives aimed at promoting modern languages in Scotland, not least the policy of Language for All to the age of 16 and Modern Languages in the Primary School.

Yet we face a singular failure to bring about an improvement in the linguistic skills of our young people. Why? One of the most problematic areas in Scottish education in recent years, and at a time of teacher shortage, has been the insane proliferation of career opportunities for teachers outside of the classroom, indeed outside of the school, and it has been to these people, whose days in the classroom are over, that the job, not only of developing new initiatives, but of reporting on their "success" has fallen.

Solomon, that wisest of all men, cautioned against moving ancient boundaries, and perhaps the time has come to take a look at the state of language learning as it really is today - not on what children appear to be achieving at 5-14 but rather to measure success against that more ancient boundary, those attempting and achieving Higher in a modern language.

From 58 per cent of those passing O grade in 1975 who sat Higher French in 1976, the figure stood at 16 per cent of those passing Standard grade and sitting the Higher in 2003; for German, we were at 62 per cent then and 15 per cent last year.

What we see is a relentless decline since the mid 1970s, a decline totally unaffected by the policy of language for all and the huge injections of money involved.

Angus Ross. Jib Park, Finstown. Orkney

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