More languages and less fluency

24th April 1998 at 01:00
How can our children learn to communicate effectively with fellow Europeans? Neil Munro reports from a conference in Stirling

Major changes in the way modern languages are taught across Europe were signalled at an international conference in Stirling last week.

John Mitchell, former HM Inspector, said: "The central issue for teachers of languages is how to bring the learners to the point of being able to communicate naturally or instinctively as a result of being able to think in the other language. Once that has taken place, the going becomes easier for further learning of the other language and, indeed, for acquiring a third language and thus becoming multilingual."

This multilingual approach was one of the themes of the conference, organised by the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department to mark the UK's six-month presidency of the European Union.

Jacques Souillot, a teacher and researcher from Paris, said it was time to promote multilingualism and to recognise that near-native proficiency was not going to be possible for all learners.

Endorsement for this view of "partial competence" in other languages came from Dick Johnstone, a key adviser on modern languages to both the Scottish Office and the European Commission. Professor Johnstone is head of the institute of education at Stirling University and joint leader of a pound;90,000 Government study investigating why so few pupils continue with a modern language after 16. At the moment only 15 per cent of the fifth and sixth year stay with a language.

The conference participants were treated to the usual gloom about the UK's prospects for expanding foreign language learning in an Anglophone world.

But there was some comfort from reports that other European countries were experiencing similar problems persuading pupils to take up foreign languages.

A survey of modern language learning across Europe by the European Commission concluded: "The growing need for people who can use two or more languages is widely recognised. But young people finish their secondary studies with a level of language skill which is on the whole unsatisfactory."

Edith Cresson, the Commission member responsible for education, is a strong supporter of pupils learning three European languages. The EU is currently recommending this policy to its member governments. But some sources suggest the proposal stems from fears that French might otherwise be squeezed out.

Professor Johnstone said new information and communication technologies should be used to revolutionise the learning of languages, although he accepted this was a long-term strategy. "If we can develop the technology, it ought to be possible for all teachers to interact with teachers in other countries, with partial competence in each other's language a sufficient objective.

"If we can build this kind of competence in two or more languages into teachers' initial training, schools should be able to sustain inter-cultural contacts across national boundaries. The languages will then follow."

Ian Lamont, rector of Alva Academy in Clackmannanshire, has established links with German and Danish schools. He endorsed the advantages of establishing "regular communication with real schools in real countries", via video conferences, the Internet and electronic mail. But he warned that this involved a lot of additional work for teachers.

Mr Lamont, who is chair of the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research in Scotland. told The TESS: "If the authorities are going to ask teachers to take this on, it must be part of a coherent curricular package, not something they do in their spare time".

* The conference heard that the experience of Gaelic medium teaching could benefit wider language learning. It was hailed as "a real success story" by Graham Donaldson, depute head of the inspectorate.

Professor Johnstone said using another language as the medium of teaching meant the language was "not just another subject." In 1994 some 140 secondary schools in Germany taught subjects through a foreign language. But the lesson from the Gaelic initiative was the crucial need for parental support.

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