Don't speak too soon on modern languages;Comment;Opinion

20th February 1998 at 00:00
Modern languages have received unprecedented publicity in the Scottish press, particularly in relation to low uptake at Higher, negative pupil attitudes in S1-S4 and the survival of the "languages in primary" initiative. As directors of the national Scottish Office-funded research on the decline in uptake in modern languages at Higher, we understand these concerns, though we should point out that ours were not the findings reported from Stirling University (TESS, January 23). We are still in the middle of our investigation. We shall be reporting in the autumn and our findings will be in the public domain early next year.

While we accept that many feel a change or at least clarification and strengthening of national policy is required, we are in no doubt that the media have oversimplified matters. The Scottish Office hypothesised some 10 possible factors that might be contributing to the problem. The publicity has focused on only a few but our initial research suggests that the situation is more, not less, complex that even the Scottish Office assumed and that a network of interacting factors are at play that do not lend themselves to simple explanations.

Much has been made of pupils' negative attitudes. It is true that some, perhaps many, have been turned off languages. However, last August, within a week of the announcement of a conference on "Modern Languages in the Emerging Europe", well over 500 S4-S5 pupils had expressed a wish to attend. On the day, they had many pertinent questions to ask which suggested open rather than closed minds.

Much has also been implied about ineffective teaching. The annual conference of the Scottish Association for Language Teaching attracts 400 delegates, on a Saturday. Few if any other subjects can claim this level of commitment.

A key underlying factor must be Scotland's sociolinguistic context. It is likely that increasing numbers across the world will learn one common language, possibly an evolved form of international English. Does this mean that, for Scots, foreign languages will be redundant? To assume this would be to ignore linguistic sensitivities and policies across member states of the emerging Europe, grounded on cultural diversity and parity of linguistic esteem. It would also be to ignore opportunities. If young Scots remain monolingual, they won't benefit from the opportunities for educational, vocational and social mobility within this linguistically diverse Europe that their counterparts on the continent take for granted. The opportunity is there. Is it perceived?

In our research we have conducted interviews in 12 schools, selected so that some were above the average level of national decline in uptake at Higher, others at or below. Some schools - not in areas of particular advantage - do buck the trend and achieve high uptake. We are not confronted by historical inevitability.

We have interviewed headteachers, guidance and timetabling staff, principal teachers, and pupils from S2 to S5. Do they all tell the same story? We asked the pupils to convey their thoughts in writing and then we interviewed them in groups. In some cases it was interesting to note disparities between what a pupil would write and what the same pupil would say.

The data has helped develop questionnaires intended for a range of S4-S5 pupils and their principal teachers and headteachers in 100 schools. Among the pupil factors that we are investigating are their motivation or otherwise for learning languages, their attitudes to languages at school and their perceptions of themselves as language learners: the extent to which they experience anxiety, self-esteem, intellectual stimulation, boredom and apply particular strategies. We will also be learning whether they perceive the school as having an international ethos that is promoted by the school's senior management.

Our report will seek to identify key underlying factors and to suggest what might be done. Meanwhile in the absence of extensive research evidence the public debate about languages must continue but we hope that those participating in it will calmly appraise the situation and not jump to hasty conclusions.

Professor Richard Johnstone is head of the Institute of Education, Stirling University, and director of the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research. Joanna McPake is programme manager at the Scottish Council for Research on Education.

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