The future is so much more than Mandarin

7th July 2006 at 01:00
Tailoring language learning to the likely needs of pupils is the key to success, says Michael Russell

If you are approached at a football match by a man called Olli who fires off reams of unintelligible foreign stuff, "Ich spreche nur wenig Deutsch" is the formulation to use, according to a World Cup quiz on the BBC Languages website. But even if you do speak only a little German, you will, later on in the quiz, have acquired enough to be able to roar "Tor" when your team scores.

Unfortunately for our First Minister, the site contains no instructions about how to assert your support for Trinidad and Tobago.

It is, however, a very practical and useful approach to inculcating in the least linguistically-oriented England fan a smattering of useful information. It even advises taking a bottle of wine and a bunch of flowers to dinner if invited into a German household.

Tailoring language learning to the actual or likely needs of learners is increasingly seen as the best way to build language skills. Those of us taught French by people who had rarely been there, and whose approach to language education was entirely driven by academic process, quickly gave up the subject - although, in later years, struggling to make ourselves understood in a Breton restaurant or a Camargue bar, we no doubt wished we had stuck it for just a bit longer.

However, if we had been equipped for just such circumstances by our school education (and not for corresponding with imaginary pals called Jules or enquiring the whereabouts of our aunt's pen), then not only would that have stood us in better stead but we might also have spent more effort and time on the matter.

Just such targeted learning is taking place in primary schools throughout Scotland, with some 89 per cent of them now teaching relevant conversational French to pupils at some stage, and 22 per cent providing German.

But resistance to more formal and deeper teaching - teaching that often departs from tackling likely needs - means that by Standard grade, only about half of all pupils presented for English also sit the French exam, and something less than a fifth tackle German.

Numbers for other languages are even smaller and, while performance is broadly comparable to that in maths and English, it is worse than for the "optional" subjects. Then at Higher level, while 28,707 took English in 2005, only 4,515 had carried on with French. However by this stage, performance had picked up, with a higher proportion of A and B passes than in any other subject except music. This above-average performance continues at college and university level, with roughly the same number specialising in languages as those who study architecture and building. But it is half the total of those studying IT and a seventh of those studying business or commerce.

From these figures one can safely draw the inference that, while language learning is still comparatively mainstream in Scotland (the percentages are roughly comparable with most English-speaking countries, though much lower than non- English-speaking European ones), it may not be attracting enough enthusiasm after primary school. While that might just be regrettable on one level, on another it could be positively damaging.

Language skills are of increasing importance in a globalised world for, although English is the dominant tongue, there is both a competitive advantage, and a cultural imperative, in being able to do business in a way that puts one's customers at ease. Scotland as a small nation needs to have such competitive advantages, and individuals with the relevant skills are likely to find themselves with plenty of career opportunities.

But of course, there is another more general upside as well. To go back to the World Cup terraces, spending a fortnight in Germany would have been more interesting, enjoyable and ultimately rewarding if one had a bit of the language. And that is where appropriate learning comes in again.

It would be a safe assumption to expect most Scots to travel to either France, Germany or Spain (perhaps the Spanish islands most of all) at some stage in their lives and - global warming not withstanding - to do so more than once. So compulsory primary and secondary language learning that focused on the needs of such travel, in several languages, might be a useful way to proceed.

If such basic skills were acquired, it is then likely that more pupils would wish to undertake intensive learning, and their ability to do so would be enhanced, given that there is much evidence which shows that learning one language helps in subsequent language acquisition.

Of course, such language learning need not be teacher-intensive, given the excellent video and audio materials that have been available for some time, and which are constantly being updated. So the provision of resources to each pupil for home learning is economically feasible as well, thus further enriching the educational experience. In fact, MP3 files for iPods and other music players are commonplace in this sphere of education, thus making matters even easier.

Moreover, such appropriate and accessible learning - with or without the added incentive of World Cups - is more likely to enthuse young people than any of the alternative remedies for language teaching and learning presently being mooted. It is certainly more likely to do so than the recent proposal from our First Minister, who is never short of fondness for a fad, about introducing Mandarin lessons. No doubt we will need more Mandarin speakers in future years. But the right way to get them to fluency is to make sure that, as children, their enthusiasm for languages is fired by good general tuition and the realisation that understanding the way that other people think, speak and write is fun and has a practical application.

Mandarin is not the right way, not least because it will also turn off lots of others by making languages appear ever more difficult, esoteric, academic and therefore, for the vast majority, irrelevant and to be resisted.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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