Speaking sense on modern languages

13th February 1998 at 00:00
The front-page article on "Languages in crisis" (TESS, January 23) has been a long time in coming but perhaps now that the scales have fallen from the eyes of some influential people we can look forward to a future that is systematically planned. For more than a decade the educational Trotskyists have imposed permanent revolution on schools and on the teaching of modern languages in particular.

They started to demolish the structure by attacking the middle years of secondary schooling and introducing Standard grade without even asking how it would fit in with what is taught in the earlier and later years of secondary school. They then embarked on Revised Highers or rather they forced teachers into introducing them with minimal resourcing.

The same zealots who now condemn the system they foisted on us in the first place compounded their folly by advocating modern languages for all in the third and fourth years. As if that were not enough, the primary pilot appeared over the horizon.

The skids seem now to be firmly under Standard grade as a result of a Higher Still programme that looks like a Scotvec takeover of the whole examination system. The demise of Standard grade will have a knock-on effect on the early years while the primary pilot flies headlong towards disaster. This whole sorry tale seems destined to end only when the last S4 pupil has concluded, rightly, that Higher modern languages are just too hard and gain you no more university entrance points than others which involve a whole lot less stress and grief.

Some of us have been sceptical about the permanent revolution from the start. The compulsory modern language in S3-S4 was in part a panic reaction to the decline in uptake beyond second year. Yet there are increasing numbers of pupils whose mother tongue skills are disastrously inadequate. Those pupils need to be rendered literate and numerate far more than they need to know how to say something in a foreign language.

If the Standard grade syllabus is "crap" whose fault is it? Over the years teachers have been told by advisers, HMI and other "experts" to use group work, resource-based techniques, topic-based courses, communicative approaches, to concentrate on speaking at the expense of grammar and writing and never to use English in the classroom. Now the message seems to be that teachers must return to class teaching, grammar lessons and joined-up writing. This is not so much permanent revolution as one full revolution - what goes around comes around.

As for the exam diet, the syllabus may be "crap" but an inordinate amount of time is spent assessing it. A pupil sitting Standard grade physics, for example, can get the whole thing out of the way in the morning. A pupil contemplating a Higher in a modern language must first sit six exam papers in a day, finishing at 4pm, and all this for only half the available marks on the compulsory papers. Speaking is worth 50 per cent too and is assessed internally and by external moderation.

Those who expressed doubts about what is turning into a kamikaze primary pilot were dismissed at the outset as Jeremiahs. The folly of allowing primary schools to embark, for example, on German where this language was not taught in the local secondary school must be apparent to all but those who set up the project. The overcrowded third-year curriculum has already undermined the second foreign language and now HMI finally tells us that the primary pilot is endangering languages other than French.

The situation is bad but not irredeemable. If the "elitist" approach is adopted, and all pupils who have achieved a good command of their own language will without exception be taught one or more foreign languages then things might improve. Primary schools must concentrate on basic literacy and let secondary schools try to turn monoglots into polyglots. If modern languages must continue in primary schools then a Higher in a modern language (preferably not French) must be made an entrance requirement to teacher training courses. This will delay things but the programme is in poor shape anyway.

Modern languages teachers should not despair at the prospect of dwindling numbers. After all, if primary staff can be "trained" in a foreign language in a matter of hours and Latin teachers can be retrained in computing, then for those who have mastered the most difficult subject picking up another one should be child's play.

Mary Small is a former teacher of modern languages.

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