Teach the languages of tolerance

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Many years ago, I supported those who complained that schools taught foreign languages in an irrelevant, unstimulating way. Children did not want to learn, I argued, about "la plume de ma tante", French irregular verbs or the novels of Balzac. They wanted "tourist French" that would allow them to buy a bus ticket or order ice cream. These were useful skills and children would see the point of them.

Now, as reported in last week's TES, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has found that ordering ice cream is also regarded as boring. The authority's Bene't Steinberg says we need a "balance between relevance and rigour". This is probably right. I have long advocated balance in all sorts of things (worklife, applesdoughnuts, trendytraditional), and nobody is interested.

So I shall eschew balance and suggest we should concentrate language teaching in primary schools, starting as early as seven. Young children do not care that they cannot use the French or German they learn and that buying a bus ticket is boring whatever language you do it in. The very idea that people go around talking to each other in a different language is to them exotic enough. Most will in any case do as they are told. My generation had to learn all the capital cities of Europe, a useless exercise which we performed without complaint.

Non-English children see that learning English, or rather American English, gives access to the world's dominant culture. In countries where tourism is a big industry, English also gives access to jobs in hotels, clubs and bars, which may be ill-paid drudgery but look attractive to many young people. No such gratification presents itself to English children.

Foreigners cannot talk on TV without their voices being drowned by voice-overs. Sub-titled films are confined to FilmFour. Foreign television shows are never shown at all. More than 90 per cent of internet sites are in English.

We should nevertheless teach foreign languages. First, because exposure to different languages makes people more tolerant and open. Probe a racist's thought processes and you will often find that what most disturbs him is the chatter of an alien tongue. Second, children should learn at least one language because the skill, if acquired early, is transferable to learning other languages.

With the foundations laid in primary school, we can make languages optional after 13 when children are more resistant to anything which smacks of hard work and lacks immediate relevance.

There are numerous reasons why a 14-year-old may acquire interest in a foreign language: an impending holiday, an overseas boy or girl friend, migrants moving in next door, a wish to make more sense of what parents are talking about (common, I am told, among young Asians, whose older relatives use, say, Bengali or Hindi to discuss murky family secrets), an interest in (yes) Flaubert's novels, or an ambition to work abroad.

There is no telling what language it will be. But is it beyond our wit to make it possible for 14-year-olds to take one of those instant courses that seem to work for business people or journalists going overseas? Adolescence is the time for experimentation, for trying out new ideas and experiences.

Better that schools acknowledge this than that they bore children with lessons in how to order an ice cream in a language they may never use.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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