Lost in translation

17th October 2014 at 01:00

Educationalist Keir Bloomer said recently that modern languages were "in the last-chance saloon". He was right. There is a danger that the Scottish government's 1+2 approach - which demands that children learn an additional language from P1 - could do more harm than good.

By the time children leave primary school they are expected to be "competent" in two additional languages. However, the website of SCILT, Scotland's national centre for languages, states that "any language may be chosen".

We need a clear national plan for which languages are offered. If we leave it to schools to choose from the 12 proposed languages, there will be obvious problems of continuity as pupils and teachers move across authorities.

Decision-makers have a number of options. The second language could be something like Chinese or Gaelic - training would cost a lot of money and it would be a massive challenge, but it could be done. A simpler solution would be for all pupils to learn French from P1 and either Spanish or German from P5. That would minimise transition problems to secondary school.

Alternatively, a general programme could allow a taste of a range of languages - why not Arabic, Portuguese or Italian? What is important is that we have a coherent national plan, rather than the muddle that we have at present.

Then we must devise a national training programme that allows primary teachers to feel confident in delivering languages. The SCILT website states that local authorities have responsibility for preparing primary teachers, but there is no set number of days for training. This is in stark contrast to the previous 27-day national programme, which was coordinated, quality-controlled and evaluated nationwide.

Some authorities are training primary teachers for four or five days. If that is all we can afford then we need to cut our cloth accordingly, but we should stop pretending that we can seriously address our linguistic and economic needs. In a four-day programme teachers can get through some of the key content in one language, but they are not going to cover a lot of ground.

Another recommendation was that student primary teachers have a Higher in a language. Leaving aside the fact that Highers do not exist in some of the 12 languages, how is the student to predict which language they will need? The SCILT website states that it remains "desirable" that training courses include a language component. So are the universities to offer training in all 12 languages, or allow students to specialise in one or two of them? If the latter, how are they to know which languages?

We would recommend focusing on P6-7 for now. Research is split as to whether P1 is the best place to start. If there is money to spend and a desire to improve in languages, then it would be better to invest in upper primary and secondary linguists.

Dr Dan Tierney is of the University of Strathclyde and Dr Lore Gallastegi is of the Open University

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