Hear no lingo, speak no lingo?

14th October 2011 at 01:00
As the Government's attempts to get schoolchildren talking foreign languages enter a new era of confusion, universities are stepping in to offer clarity, writes Helen Ward

It is one of those near-impossible policy brainteasers that has consistently beaten many of the country's best wonks, like attempting to wring efficiency savings from the NHS. Trying to do something about England's famous ambivalence to foreign language study has been subject to any number of rethinks, overhauls and U-turns over the years - but to no avail. Generation after generation of adults and children seem to take pride in being more monoglot than the last.

And despite the best efforts of well-meaning politicians and educationalists, the school system increasingly reflects this deep-seated lack of interest. Indeed, the only time anyone is obliged to learn a language is in the first three years of secondary school. A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that we do not spend much time on it even then. In percentage terms, England came bottom, along with Ireland, with languages taking up around 7.25 per cent of compulsory curriculum time for 12 to 14-year-olds. The average across the 15 European Union countries that gave figures was 14 per cent. By comparison, key stage 3 pupils in England spend about three times as long learning about technology - which includes ICT - than the EU average. Since plans to make foreign language teaching at primary school compulsory were shelved last year, provision at this level is already falling off a cliff.

The universities stepped into this mess, with some fanfare, in the middle of the last decade. Schools had failed, the professors declared, so it was up to the university sector to sort it out.

University College London's vice-provost announced that from 2012 any wannabe student would need a GCSE in a modern foreign language to study at his institution. Speaking in 2006, Professor Michael Worton told TES's sister title Times Higher Education why. "We are trying to put pressure on schools to raise the aspirations of young people and parents. If you come to a university such as UCL, you are looking at global employability," he said.

UCL, he went on, competes for students and scholars in a global field and its stance is not so unusual, even in English-speaking countries. Both Cambridge University and Trinity College Dublin have long insisted on a language and, while Harvard does not require a qualification, it says it would expect students to have studied a language for four years prior to entrance.

More recently, a spokesman for UCL put the idea of requiring a GCSE in even more grandiose terms. "One of UCL's key strategic aims in its learning, teaching and international strategies is to prepare our students to be global citizens - which will involve working across national boundaries and linguistic and cultural frontiers," he said. "An awareness of the workings of another language will help both in terms of inter-cultural understanding and also, of course, in terms of understanding one's mother language better."

At the time of UCL's original announcement, it was clear to almost anyone who was paying attention to England's schools that languages were already in crisis. In 2000, the Nuffield Languages Inquiry had highlighted the need for government to have a coherent approach to languages. It recommended that children should start learning languages in primary school, that a wider range of language experiences should be available to secondary students until the age of 19, and that universities should ask for a language qualification as a requirement for entrance.

And the Labour government did launch a national languages strategy in 2002, focused on introducing primary languages. But it also announced that languages should only be compulsory until the age of 14, rather than the traditional key stage 4. By 2006, the full repercussions of this move were being felt - the numbers taking a language GCSE had plummeted from 80 per cent to 51 per cent.

It was against this background that UCL's admissions policy change came - and it was seen as a bold move. Indeed, in 2007 the languages review carried out by Lord Dearing and Lid King, then national director for languages, noted: "Several headteachers have observed that, if such a view (requiring a GCSE for university entrance) was more widespread, it would have a significant impact on the take-up of languages post-14."

It all seemed to make sense - and was even winning UCL plaudits beyond the world of education.

Then, in 2008, this oh-so-simple solution to the language paradox was brought to a stuttering halt by the little problem of "widening participation" - the debate over how to get more deprived comprehensive kids into the top universities. It was brought into sharp focus that May when Cambridge dropped its requirement of a foreign language, saying that having a formal entry requirement that at least half of students were unable to meet was not acceptable in terms of widening participation.

The simple fact was that the condition of languages in state secondaries had spiralled downwards even more disastrously than the worst pessimists could have predicted.

Not long afterwards, Professor Worton was commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to review the health of modern foreign language education in higher education. He found that languages would soon become the preserve of privately educated students going to almost exclusively Russell Group universities, noting that 77 per cent of maintained schools had made languages optional by 2007, compared to just 17 per cent of independents.

Making a language compulsory for admission to top universities no longer seemed such a no-brainer. Implementing the strategy would, it had become clear, mean recruiting the overwhelming majority of students from independent schools, a move that would be political suicide. Suddenly university bosses found themselves scrabbling around for other ways to "solve" the languages problem.

Jump forward to the present day - just as the first cohort that would have been required to have a GCSE in a language is preparing its Ucas applications - and things remain distinctly hazy. And matters in the school sector are possibly more confused than ever. Only last week, the Government's own policies were again thrown into confusion by a possibly ad-hoc suggestion by education secretary Michael Gove that language teaching in primaries should be compulsory. Hold on, countered any number of experts and teachers, isn't that just what you scrapped last year?

One languages consultant even wrote to Mr Gove to complain. "I believe that you fail to understand the level of damage you caused to the primary languages initiative when you summarily abandoned the Rose review of the primary curriculum," he wrote. "The subsequent loss of momentum has meant that, in many primary schools, languages has slipped down the list of priorities in the absence of any lead from Government. I also believe that you fail to appreciate the level of funding that will be necessary to return us to where we were in May 2010, let alone to drive the initiative forward.

"Furthermore, during the silence of the last 18 months an entire cadre of highly talented and dedicated language professionals has been laid off as local authorities delete their posts," he added, damningly.

So, as Government strategy for encouraging pupils to take languages reaches yet another deeply confused milestone, the university sector is again beginning to innovate in the area.

Take Aston University, for example. The Birmingham institution's approach is, at face value, rather different from that of UCL. From next year, all undergraduates will be offered a place on a free course in French, German, Spanish, Mandarin or Arabic at either beginner, intermediate or advanced level. To language-averse Brits, it may seem an even less tempting freebie than a two-for-one on Justin Bieber downloads, but Aston is confident. In 2007, 100 non-language students took a language course. Last year more than 600 students applied for one of 500 places on the courses. This, the university says, represents a major success.

"The students who are coming to university now are part of the generation who were allowed to drop languages at GCSE," says Dr Emmanuelle Labeau, senior lecturer and director of the university-wide language programme. "They may have been happy to do that at 14 because they didn't like their language teacher, but later in life they realise it may be useful. Because now, for good jobs, employers are seeking people with international experiences."

UCL has now softened its stance. Its new policy is that if a student does not have a language GCSE on entry, they can study for one during their degree. Although the course is compulsory, if they don't pass they can still get their degree - even a first-class degree.

So has UCL's plan failed even before it had a chance to be implemented? Teresa Tinsley, a freelance languages consultant, thinks not. She argues that it challenged other universities to think about their wider role in language learning. Both UCL and Aston contribute in different ways to languages being seen as a basic skill.

"UCL felt strongly that having some skill in languages was an attribute of a graduate and so, symbolically, it was really important because they did come out and say that," she says.

But this new position risks annoying both those who think language should be a requirement and those who think it should not. Luke Durigan, 20, has just finished his second year of a four-year degree in French and Spanish at UCL. "UCL is now saying it is not going to be seen as a problem because you have the opportunity to do a 0.5 unit (a very small percentage of an overall degree) in a modern foreign language anyway," he says. "I don't doubt their motives, but I am quite wary about it. The way I interpret this 0.5-unit offer is that it means the subject that people have chosen to study will take a 0.5 hit."

Universities insist they are still working with schools, too - for example, through the Routes into Languages programme that links universities to schools. With close to #163;10 million of funding so far, both universities and schools have suggested that the programme of conferences, after-school activities, student ambassadors, school visits and taster days is highly successful at interesting pupils in languages. Indeed, one recent supportive evaluation pointed as an example to an event held in the North West, where eight pupils, who were adamant they were not going to take a language, were persuaded otherwise. Two years later, six of them sat a language GCSE. However, even the biggest supporters of this work say that it is subjective at best.

There is one final irony to this tale. The climate for languages in secondaries is now, after many years in the doldrums, actually changing for the better, and it has nothing to do with universities and, frankly, little to do with schools themselves. It is the advent of the English Baccalaureate - a ministerial intervention controversial on many levels - that is quietly proving a huge boon for KS4 languages. Why? Because to achieve the EBac pupils will be expected to achieve a number of traditional subjects to a C-grade or better at GCSE, not least of all in a modern foreign language.

Already, Government statistics show an increase in Year 10 take-up this year and the jobs market has also seen a sharp upturn in demand for language teachers - an excellent way of projecting future qualification trends. Good news for linguists around the country, then.

After years of universities and primaries attempting to resolve the languages dilemma, it is actually a secondary-level initiative that has come to the rescue. And it is beautiful in its simplicity: leave bright kids with little option but to do languages and they will do them.

The flip-side, of course, is that the moment they do not feel obliged to take on these tricky subjects they will drop them like a stone. Monoglot habits die hard.

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