It's more than just words

6th December 2002 at 00:00
We will all lose if modern languages are left to go the way of Greek and Latin, says Anthony Handley

Many of us will have stood in the school dining hall noticing child after child consuming chip after chip, oblivious to - or deliberately ignoring - warnings of future obesity and ill health. School meal services are complicit in this; they give children what they want.

Nor does the market place in education confine itself to the dining hall. Whole subject areas are able, through good luck or design, to appeal to vast numbers of youngsters. The sciences, for example, necessarily attract the would-be doctors and vets, while others head along the media studiespsychology route, perhaps thinking they'll all network better in their new TV job.

The political football which British education has become causes it to lurch from one extreme to another. In foreign-language teaching, for example, the previous Conservative government made languages compulsory up to 16, citing the importance of our ties with Europe and the need to communicate with, and be open to, the wider world.

I believed these reasons were fair and sensible, but that a small minority of children who got nothing from languages should still be able to opt out. We now have the other extreme. Whole year groups will be able to give up languages at 14, and indeed will be encouraged to when making a choice in an option block against subjects like art and drama.

At a recent AQA course on German at A-level, I asked whether exam boards might make the language curriculum and exams a little more accessible, attractive and easier?

History, for example, has gone the whole hog and become attractive through the "20th centuryisation" of the world's history, with a concentration on the Cold War and the Nazis.

Something in the direction of more approachable content would help. Along with the enormous breadth of skills required within language learning, my 18-year-olds must, for example, answer political questions in German that Tony Blair himself would struggle with in English. The AQA spokesperson simply replied that they had to "maintain standards".

The Government's National Languages Strategy is set to address the question of languages in primary schools. I will be amazed if something coherent and comprehensive is put in place, partly because the pressures on them will not allow it.

It will take brave secondary schools to maintain their support for a balanced curriculum. Schools are now under such league-table pressure that they are sorely tempted to jettison subjects like languages, which are perceived as hard, for more accessible subjects like information and communications technology which can supply two or more GCSEs per child.

The Government's citizenship programme asks pupils to view other cultures positively, while other policies dictate that one language - English - is enough. English may be widely spoken, but with language comes cultural awareness. To demand that others speak English to us is to demand that they be like us.

Commentators sometimes question which language should be learnt. But the learning of any language will facilitate the learning of the next. Any individual who has reached adulthood without learning a language to a reasonable level, including an understanding of its essential grammar, will probably never be able to learn a foreign language.

In a meeting recently, I predicted that language teaching would play no greater role in state schools in 25 years' time than Latin and Greek do now, and that the ensuing cultural insularity would be devastating.

And a policy reversal rapidly becomes impossible, as the shortage of language students becomes, in turn, a shortage of language teachers. A senior Qualifications and Curriculum Authority spokesman said he hoped it would not come to that.

It is time to reassess what is meant by an appropriate curricular balance if we are to take our place in the modern world.

Anthony Handley is a modern foreign languages teacher and a member of the General Teaching Council for England

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