Languages need lively teaching

31st March 2006 at 01:00
In straight exam terms, the numbers taking modern languages in S5 and S6 seem satisfactory. But this masks the real problem, as the Royal Society conference established last week (pages three and six). The focus is switching from the collection of certificates to the ability to speak the language.

There are obviously educational merits in "partial competence", as the languages inspector pointed out. But what matters, especially for young people, is to converse with someone in their native tongue. Sadly, we do badly in speaking languages for the oft-stated reasons that English is the current dominant world language and we have no immersion in other languages through television, music or culture.

How timely it was that the Royal Society conference was held the day after Jacques Chirac, the French President, walked out of an EU summit after a fellow Frenchman chose to speak in English "because that is the accepted business language of Europe today".

The other key dimension of any curriculum subject is how it is delivered, and languages appear to have a problem here. They are viewed as difficult and dry if there is no immediate contact with peers in another country.

Even the chief inspector admits teaching can be unimaginative, and addressing that might at least be part of the solution.

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