Language teaching needs a lift

11th June 2004 at 01:00
In the week of the European elections it is hard not to see parallels in ambivalence towards collaboration with our neighbours and our lack of enthusiasm for their languages. These islands must surely be the only part of the European Union where language teaching is in retreat.

There are, of course, reasons why continental pupils might be more enthusiastic about acquiring the dominant language of pop-culture and Hollywood, not to mention that of much international travel and business.

Even in the proudest nations, learning English must still seem "cool" in adolescence - a word which is one of the essential bits of contemporary usage to master.

In contrast, the foreign holidays we mostly indulge in take place in cantonments of Britishness where even supermarket checkout operators are fluent in English. In reality, only a very small number of jobs for young Britons require languages.

This lack of extrinsic motivation puts an even greater onus on those who believe languages are an essential component of general education - or a strategic economic necessity - to make such lessons intrinsically motivating. Sadly, however, the opposite is generally the case.

Exceptionally enthusiastic language teaching exists and is therefore possible. It has been recognised in national teaching awards. But the Office for Standards in Education tends to rate modern languages among the very worst lessons it inspects.

And now both the exam boards and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority which sets requirements for exams are accused of contributing to the subject's unattractiveness. Problems with the recruitment of specialist teachers, meanwhile, have added to the rush to relax compulsory language teaching.

If they are to survive as part of our common experience and as a skill we all learn and enjoy, lessons in languages need a complete makeover and update to inspire anew teachers and learners. They need to be more useful and relevant but above all more fun: a bit more "ooh la la!" and a bit less "plume de ma tante".

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