Que?;Subject of the week;Modern Languages

5th March 1999 at 00:00
What's happening to modern languages? Will they survive the national curriculum revisions? Peter Downes, a member of an independent inquiry asking the same questions, urges teachers to have their say

Modern foreign languages are facing testing times. By the end of the month, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority will make its recommendations on the revisions to the national curriculum, followed by formal consultation during the summer term. Will MFL survive as a compulsory subject? Will the programmes of study be changed? Does it matter?

The future of MFL is also being investigated by the Nuffield Languages Inquiry (NLI), of which I am a member. This inquiry is co-chaired by broadcaster Trevor McDonald and Sir John Boyd, Master of Churchill College, Cambridge. Its work is now well under way and evidence is flooding in from speakers of foreign languages and providers of language teaching. Although the closing date for submissions was officially the end of December, Alan Moys, the NLI secretary, would be pleased to hear from anybody else who has important points to make (see box).

Traditionally, UK citizens have had a poor reputation for languages and are assumed to have little motivation to learn since "all the rest of the world speaks our language anyway".

Early evidence from the NLI shows that this attitude appears to be changing. There is increasing parental demand for an early start to languages: up to 25 per cent of primary pupils may be having some regular contact with foreign language learning. There is buoyant demand for language classes for adults, both for business and pleasure, and, most encouragingly of all, an independent opinion poll shows that more than 80 per cent of people, especially the under-25s, recognise the need for foreign languages.

Among these encouraging signs, many familiar problems have been drawn to our attention and these will need to be resolved if we are to meet the changing language needs of the 21st century.

Primary languages teaching is haphazard and unco-ordinated. And many secondary heads see MFL as a problem area since GCSE results are lower than in most other subjects. Disaffection among key stage 4 pupils, especially lower- ability boys, is rife and leads to discipline problems. It is difficult to recruit well-qualified linguists and the supply of male languages teachers has all but dried up.

The proportion of pupils taking languages post-16 is dropping as more and more opt for business studies and sociology. Even those who do choose to continue find the transition from GCSE to A-level difficult since the level of grammatical understanding required for a good GCSE pass is relatively low. The number of university students taking one, let alone two, specialist languages is in free-fall but there is an increase in those combining a language with another subject - and quite a demand for languages as an ancillary skill.

This mismatch between supply and demand is the hardest nut for the Nuffield Inquiry to crack. What must emerge is a more coherent policy which recognises the special position in which we find ourselves: "owners", as it were, of the international lingua franca, yet acutely conscious that knowing English alone is no longer sufficient for an increasingly international lifestyle. As more of us travel abroad, work with overseas countries, inter-marry and settle in Europe or further afield, monolingualism is no longer an option.

Several "solutions" are being put to the NLI but the members are still some way from reaching a conclusion. If the evidence for an early start to language learning is persuasive, how could this be achieved, given the shortage of specialist teachers, even for the secondary sector? Could an introductory language awareness taster course for Years 5 and 6 be an answer, at least in the short term?

In the secondary sector, the possibility that MFL may no longer be statutory in key stage 4 could send language learning into terminal decline. but if it is to remain compulsory, how could the programme of study be redesigned to avoid demotivation?

For example, might it not be better to allow some pupils to take foundation GCSE modules at the end of Year 9, bank the results and then switch in key stage 4 to another language, taking more modules at the end of Year 11 to complete a GCSE in "languages"?

There is a vigorous debate about whether you can bring about change by encouragement or compulsion. Some NLI respondents would like to see a foreign language as a key skill in post-16 studies and are advocating that all post-16 students should take an A-level, an AS-level or, at the very least, devote an hour a week to keeping their foreign languages alive.

Others would like to see the same approach continued at university level. The "compulsion lobby" would like universities to require evidence of post-16 languages study as an entry requirement.

The work of the NLI is taking place alongside the national curriculum revision. QCA consultation groups have been talking about bringing the MFL levels into line with other subjects, increasing the emphasis on grammar, making it respectable to use English in the MFL classroom where appropriate and linking the teaching of MFL to the teaching of English. The significance of the National Literacy Strategy, now sweeping through the primary sector with varying degrees of success, could have a profound effect in a few years' time on the MFL teaching style. It might once again become acceptable to explain how a language works as well as playing at communicating in it.

What is becoming clear is that the long battle to transform the UK's long-standing aversion to foreign languages and an apparent in-bred incompetence is not going to be fought by the professional providers alone. Within society - the media for example - there will have to be much greater prominence given to the value of languages. Bringing about this transformation is probably the NLI's biggest challenge.

This is a critical time for MFL in this country. Teachers must make their views known now to the subject officers at the QCA, either direct at 29 Bolton Street, London W1Y 7PD, or via the Association for Language Learning (ALL) at 150 Railway Terrace, Rugby, CV21 3HN.

Our hopes are high that a better way forward can be found. Contributions to the debate are urgently sought and will need to be wide-ranging and imaginative if our endemic difficulties are to be overcome.

Peter Downes is a member of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry, president of the Association for Language Learning and former head of Hinchingbrooke School, Cambridgeshire. He writes here in a personal capacity


The Nuffield Languages Inquiry The three key questions:

* What capability in languages will the UK need in the next 20 years if it is to fulfil its economic social and cultural aims?

* Do present policies and arrangements meet our needs?

* What initiatives do we need to implement?

Ideas and comments should be sent to: The Nuffield Languages inquiry, PO Box 2671, London W1A 3SH Tel: 0171 911 5054 Fax: 0171 911 5167 E-mail: nuflang@compuserve.com http:www.nuffield.org

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