Engage the young Anglophones

11th December 1998 at 00:00
Zut alors! Qu'est-ce qui se passe? Do you remember 1992, when it was predicted that Europe would arrive overnight on our shores? Bingo numbers would be called in several languages and the people next door were as likely to be Basques as Baxters.

Instead, we have experienced a tidal wave of monolingualism, sweeping across the globe in tandem with the advance of computer technology and the information superhighway. It is an uphill battle to motivate young anglophones to study another language when everyone from the Internet to the Spanish waiter responds to them in English.

A feature of the gospel of 1992 was that we would all have to learn at least one language other than English, even for the most menial occupations. Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Scotland at the time, announced that all young people would be required to study a European language to S4.

Few schools will now claim that compulsory modern languages has been an unqualified success. Schools and education authorities have serious doubts about whether the blanket demand of "Languages for All" suits every pupil. The fact remains that our future economic competitiveness and the individual's mobility within the labour market will be determined by our ability to deal with the languages and cultures of other nations.

Standard grade courses in languages have shifted emphasis from the written word to effective oral communication. Out went the "famille Bertillon" and rote learning of tenses and a deluge of text books appeared,thick with reality but thin on substance. This created an ever-widening gulf between the methodology required for Standard grade and for Higher.

Next came modern languages in the primary school. Teachers were enthusiastic but training and resources were limited. The time allocation within the curriculum was often minimal and there was insufficient emphasis on progression from primary to secondary school. Given these restrictions, they have responded professionally and generously.

To blame primary schools and secondary languages departments after all this linguistic brouhaha for courses that are too oral in emphasis is disingenuous in the extreme. Teachers will claim that they have responded to the exigencies of a national modern languages syllabus, about which many had harboured grave doubts. Both the course guidelines and the distribution of marks in exams have led them to favour an oral approach, leading to an inevitable decline in standards of writing.

Substantial improvements are required in the content and methodology of language courses, and I have no doubt that conscientious teachers will rise to the challenge of the recent HMI report. Questions also have to be asked about pre-service training provided, resources available, and in particular about national guidance received by teachers.

Returning to the days when pupils could write out faultless model essays but were stricken with aphasia at the sight of a Frenchman is unlikely to resolve our national problem with languages. Nor will compulsion stem the prevailing tide of anglocentricity. A more imaginative approach, which builds on the positive developments of recent years, has more chance of delivering improvement than recrimination.

Holy Rood has a strong tradition of teaching Italian, which is well supported by the Italian consulate. We have agreed with our associated primary schools to offer French and Italian to first year pupils in alternate years.

Our able and enthusiastic teachers will do whatever is required to motivate their pupils to persevere with languages. Nonetheless, as the pendulum swings again, they will need to be reassured that the modern languages curriculum at national level knows where it is going.

Some work remains to be done in promoting comprehension of our native English. I recently spoke to a third year boy about his involvement in a fight. "Did you retaliate?" I asked him. "No," he replied, "I do French." I knew what he meant.

Patrick Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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