How pupils are saying nein, danke to German

6th March 2015 at 00:00
Students can't seem to get enough of Mandarin but are bidding `auf Wiedersehen' to the language of Scotland's near neighbour and economic partner Germany. ?Julia Belgutay asks why

The premise offered hope to foreign language teachers and all those promoting language learning in schools across Scotland. The 1+2 strategy, announced by the government in 2012, was finally going to bring language learning up to speed with other European countries.

Every child in Scotland would study one foreign language from the first year of primary school, and a second from no later than P5 - a pledge that the government backed up with pound;4 million of funding last year and a further pound;5 million in 2014-15.

But more than two years into the implementation of the ambitious strategy, it has become clear that not all languages have been winners. Indeed, some are losing - badly.

According to the Scottish Qualifications Authority, uptake of German at Higher level has dropped from 1,261 in 2009 to just over 1,000 in 2014. The number of teachers with German as their main subject has halved in less than a decade, from 261 in 2004 to 136 in 2013. And the number of German foreign language assistants in Scottish schools has also plummeted, from 55 in 2005-06 to just six in 2014-15.

German is not the only language to have experienced a decline. French, the most popular of all the languages taught in Scottish schools, has also suffered in recent years, although the decrease in uptake has been less dramatic, from 4,577 in 2009 to 4,157 in 2014.

`Vicious circle'

"It's a vicious circle with German language learning," says Gillian Campbell-Thow, president of the Scottish Association of Language Teachers (Salt). "With only a few schools offering German in secondary, you don't have the same amount of students taking it on to further and higher education; in turn, you don't get teacher numbers and it all starts again.

"Language learning has also really struggled from curricular mapping. Limited option choices have meant that learners have not been able to pick up second languages - this is very much the case for German."

Campbell-Thow says that other languages are perceived as being bigger global players, despite German being an obvious choice for Scottish students "from an economic point of view".

She adds: "German has also suffered from lack of contextualisation - it's not being promoted or supported in the best possible way."

There can be no doubting the relevance of German to Scotland and its young people. According to the German Embassy in London, almost half of UK firms rate German as useful for their business, placing it ahead of Spanish and Mandarin. Experts at the University of Edinburgh argue that German is the second most common language in science, as well as a world leader in engineering.

An estimated 22,500 Germans live in Scotland permanently, and according to Visit Scotland, Germans account for some 13 per cent of trips to the country, with German tourists spending pound;173 million in Scotland in 2013 alone.

So why is the German language in decline in Scottish schools? Some are concerned that the government's decision to leave it up to local authorities to choose which of 12 languages to offer is partly to blame for the move away from modern European languages. More specifically, they point to the recent focus on Mandarin as a factor.

"The importance of German for Scotland's [and the] UK's economy has been overlooked for some time in favour of other European and non-European languages," a spokesman for the German Consulate-General in Edinburgh says.

"Furthermore, changes to the curriculum and budget cuts have put schools and councils under immense pressure to teach languages, which inadvertently appears to be resulting in less diversity in the languages on offer."

Liselotte Brgmann, head of teachers' services at the Goethe-Institut in Glasgow, says the institute welcomes the 1+2 policy as an attempt to promote language learning and diversity. But she adds that although the arguments for German are very strong, red tape, timetabling issues and "in particular a lack of political guidance" has further diminished the German opportunities offered in schools.

Culture clash

Since the first 36 pupils sat Highers in Chinese language in 2010, the number has risen steadily, reaching 100 last year. A network of Confucius Classroom Hubs, supported by the Chinese government, has been set up to teach not only Mandarin but also calligraphy and Chinese culture.

Dr Judith McClure, convener of the Scotland China Education Network (SCEN), tells TESS that Mandarin is being taught "in various forms" in more than 150 schools across Scotland.

"All languages matter, but Mandarin is particularly important in terms of employability and an international mindset, given the number of Mandarin speakers throughout the world, the size of China's economy, and its history and culture as the world's oldest surviving civilisation," she says.

McClure says that 17 General Teaching Council for Scotland-registered Mandarin teachers have been employed by Scottish local authorities this session, and 13 of the local authorities with a Confucius Classroom Hub have applied for partially funded Mandarin teachers. Further Scottish government funding has also been provided to help expand the hub network.

But not everyone is happy. Last year, education consultant and former Salt chair Dr Dan Tierney questioned the focus on Mandarin in Scottish education, saying that despite the huge number of Chinese speakers in the world, there was "less chance" of Scottish pupils needing the language in later life.

"Learning a bit of Mandarin might be fun but we should be identifying a few languages that are the most important to us and getting behind those," he said at the time. "In terms of export markets, the languages needed for employment and the countries pupils are most likely to visit, France, Spain, Germany and Italy are the ones we should be focusing on."

Last month, Tierney added that the decline in German was "a mistake".

Brgmann says: "Teachers and practitioners, together with representatives of cultural organisations supporting learning and teaching in Scotland, have on numerous occasions pleaded with political decision-makers to give clearer guidelines and policies in favour of language teaching. This has proved successful in the case of Gaelic and Mandarin, but has not happened in favour of other European languages such as German."

Frank talking

TESS understands that the German Consulate-General has recently written to the Scottish government seeking dialogue on the future of German teaching and learning. "We would like to enter into a frank and open dialogue on a possible strategy for German and request clear guidance for councils on language diversity," its spokesman says.

"Ideally, we would like to find a way to secure German provision at all levels across all council areas. Scotland is a European nation and that should also be reflected in its language policy."

The consulate's spokesman also notes concerns that if no action is taken, "we will most probably witness the further decline of German teaching and learning in Scottish education".

"The likelihood that German will no longer be offered in numerous council areas in the future is now very high," he adds. "This, in turn, will have an impact on the number of pupils applying to German departments at Scotland's universities and Scotland's economy."

So is it too late? Is German doomed to become a minority language in Scottish schools? In the current financial climate, other organisations such as the Goethe-Institut, German universities and the German Consulate-General will no doubt have to continue to offer as much support as possible if the language is to survive.

The Goethe-Institut in Glasgow already provides a resource library, CPD events, workshops and events for pupils, and initiatives encouraging cross-curricular approaches to language teaching. Later this month, it will also be launching its latest initiative to highlight the relevance of German, an exhibition entitled Mathematik zum Anfassen (Maths you can touch).

Focusing on science and the way in which language competence can be an advantage in that field, the interactive exhibition is aimed at P6-S3 students and will take place in Bishopbriggs.

With such commitment, experts believe the language can still be saved and thrive as part of the curriculum. Campbell-Thow says: "You need to get in there early and show [children and young people] how important it is and relevant to them."

The same experts also believe that the 1+2 policy still has scope to deliver on its promise. Campbell-Thow says it has "massive potential" for languages such as German, "but we need to be brave in our decisions and also invest in our language development and training".

Bucking the trend: the council that is embracing German

One of the local authorities bucking the trend on German is Edinburgh, where the language is currently taught in 13 secondary and 28 primary schools.

Resource packages to support the delivery of German have been developed, along with a package of key information on employability and German schools to help promote the language.

Teachers are offered German-language training courses each year, and since 2012 some 25 of them have been trained in German for use in primary.

In addition, seven German education trainees have been appointed in 2014-15 to work in both primary and secondary schools and support the implementation of the 1+2 languages policy.

Five secondaries and their associated primaries have taken part in the Goethe-Institut's Adventure German game, which uses the format of an adventure computer game to teach German as a foreign language.

The council also works closely with the University of Edinburgh on a number of projects, including German language ambassadors and German student speed dating events.

Paul Godzik, convenor of Edinburgh Council's children and families committee, pictured, says: "We recognise the key educational, cultural and economic benefits of our pupils learning German and we seek to strategically maintain and support its provision within our schools, in particular as part of Edinburgh's 1+2 languages policy."

He adds: "We also work very closely with our partners at the Goethe-Institut, the German Consulate and Mainz University to continue to enhance German provision across city schools."

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