This is not the answer to our languages crisis

9th February 2001 at 00:00
The reforms advocated in the Mulgrew report are based on a sound analysis of the problems but its solutions are unworkable, says Fred Forrester.

The Mulgrew report on Citizens of a Multilingual World provides a first-rate analysis of the serious problems facing modern languages teaching in Scotland. But the solutions advanced by the action group are unlikely to be adopted and, if they were, would not solve the problems that are so well identified. This is a classic case of pinpointing the issues and then finding the wrong answers.

We are presented with a good rationale for modern languages teaching. "Entrenched monolingualism" is a serious disadvantage for the citizens of any European country. Scots who speak only English will find their mobility and employability impaired.

Modern language graduates are less likely to find themselves unemployed than graduates in maths or computing, 63 per cent of Scotland's manufactured exports are to the European Union, with France and Germany in the top two places.

Employer representatives who met the action group said that they were looking for young people with competence in an additional language, not only for this competence in its own right but because it was an indicator of flexibility, mobility, communication skills and cultural awareness. The group argues that students need not aspire to "the inaccessible pinnacle of the native speaker". Instead they could hope to acquire "pragmatic competence", with the ability to communicate partly in English and partly in another language or the facility to understand one or more languages without being fluent in any of them ("passive bilingualism"). There is also a cultural element. "A monolingual mentality is not the same as a multilingual one."

So far, so good. But how do we move from a decline in modern languages teaching to a position where pupils opt in increasing numbers for certificated courses in the upper secondary? The group's big idea is "a languages entitlement", a non-statutory right (which is a contradiction in itself) to 500 hours of language teaching between P6 and S4 leading to a Standard grade andor a Higher Still qualification.

It would be for local authorities and schools to decide how this basic entitlement would be delivered. A page of the report is devoted to possible delivery permutations. Herein lies the weakness.

It is very unlikely that the entitlement would be deliverd across all areas and all schools unless there was a strong thrust from the centre. Bearing in mind that the current parlous state of languages in schools, which was the reason for the action group being established, is the result of the lack of priority on the part of school management teams, guidance staff and pupils and parents, it seems extraordinary that the main solution on offer is to pass the matter back to these same local levels of decision-making.

The group recommends that all new entrants to primary teaching should be trained in teaching a modern language and should hold either a credit award at Standard grade or an Intermediate 2 award in a modern foreign language. This is a step in the right direction, but it will not produce teachers who are fluent in the chosen language.

The issue of "immersion" teaching trailed before publication of the report turns out to be a bit of a damp squib. It is presented in two forms - "partial immersion", where students study a (non-linguistic) component of the curriculum through the medium of a foreign language, and "total immersion" as in Gaelic-medium schools. The latter is not seriously pushed. It is based on an unsound analogy, since it is mainly Gaelic-speaking parents (even if exiled in the Lowlands) who send their children to Gaelic-medium schools, where the teaching language is backed up by the language in the home.

But "partial immersion" is also unacceptable in principle and unattainable in practice. On what grounds can it be argued that the teaching of, say, chemistry will be enhanced if the teaching is in French?

Immersion teaching also depends crucially on foreign language native speakers or teachers completely fluent in the language being taught. These conditions are quite unusual in Scotland. Fewer foreign "assistants" are now employed (though the Mulgrew group wishes to reverse this tendency) and many qualified language teachers are less than 100 per cent fluent. This is not a criticism. It is rather a recognition of the fact that fluency is achieved by few and that many good linguists are better at reading and writing a language than at conversing in it.

The Mulgrew report will, for some time, be required reading but its recommendations are impractical and are unlikely to be accepted in full by the Scottish Executive.

Fred Forrester is former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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