Language learners silenced by fear

1st October 2004 at 01:00
In addition to the "boredom factor" in modern foreign languages in key stage 4 alluded to by Victoria Paleit (TES, September 3) there is also, I feel, the "fear factor" which has contributed to the decline in languages over the past 10 years or so.

The ever-present fear of being confronted by the incomprehensible has caused great disaffection in so many students across the ability range. I once listened to an adviser informing a meeting that modern foreign languages was almost universally the least-liked subject on the timetable, the one that students truanted from most ... "because they don't understand what is going on".

This, of course, calls into question the wisdom of excessive demands for "target language" use by teachers, a policy queried, I am sure, by the majority of teachers who would appreciate the discretion to use what they feel is the optimum amount that their students can contend with without becoming bewildered.

This fear among students of being confronted by the incomprehensible pervades examinations too: students are concerned that they may be confronted in an exam with instructions that they do not understand. They get no credit for being able to understand them, yet are seriously disadvantaged if they cannot.

In addition, it does not make the teachers' job any easier by having to convince today's KS4 students that it is really worthwhile to know the French for "Readlisten to the passage, then decide whether the following statements are true, false, or impossible to tell".

It is also true that comprehension of listening and reading is tested by unnecessarily tedious, often multi-skill activities, requiring simultaneous listeningreadinganalysingmatching of foreign-language items.

The most cursory survey of teachers' experiences would reveal that substantial numbers of students dislike the GCSE experience to the extent that they are put off any further study of a language. Instances of even very able students emerging from listening and reading comprehension tests in tears abound.

If the KS4 decline is ever to be reversed, the "fear factor" must be removed. Simple testing of comprehension by questions in English to be answered in English would suffice; (in any case, questions in the target language to be answered in the target language, or by box-ticking, do not, in fact, guarantee comprehension even when apparently answered correctly).

Examination instructions should be in plain English or other mother tongues on request.

John Young

Head of languages Priory school Bolters Lane Banstead Surrey

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