Dreary courses damage languages

29th August 2003 at 01:00
I WRITE regarding the decline in entries for AS and A2 modern languages.

The Government's decision to end the compulsory study of a language is a red herring at this stage. This decision has only just been taken and so has not had yet had any impact on those who have opted for language AS and A-level.

I am head of languages in a language college. In the first year of A2 and AS, anecdotal evidence suggested more pupils were opting for AS. However, it soon dawned on students and teachers alike that the new course was not modern languages but, in effect, general studies in a foreign language.

Pupils who had been required the previous year to discuss their holidays were required less than 12 months later (in the case of the AQA board at least) to write an essay on structural economic change in 90s Germany, based on dry, uninspiring and difficult source material.

Language teachers have been expected to become experts overnight in sociology, geography and psychology, while moving pupils on linguistically, which in the past was our primary aim. This dual imperative overloads teachers and puts undue pressure on pupils. Only the best pupils can cope.

It is little wonder that after the first year of the exam, the message got back: languages are hard, do something easier. The number going on from AS to A2 has unsurprisingly plummeted.

One important but overlooked stress factor is the far higher weighting now given to the oral exam. Oral competence is, of course, essential but this now comprises more than a third of the final mark. Pupils at A2 may have to answer questions about, say, the role of America in international politics, or advantages and disadvantages of cloning.

I say "may" because it is to a great extent up to the whim of the examiner which questions he asks. This does nothing for the confidence of the candidates. In the old A-level, it was also thus, but at least the oral was worth far less. Ask any GCSE candidate which exam is most stressful, and they will say language oral. Once a phrase has been uttered, there is no time for reflection; it cannot be amended.

The future for languages in this country looks bleak; university departments are closing and fewer are doing A-level, despite the many well-qualified and enthusiastic teachers.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and exam boards have foisted a supposedly relevant syllabus upon us which is far too demanding and, for the most part, uninspiring and demotivating even for the best pupils.

J R Whelan

Bebington, Wirral

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