They speak in tongues

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Languages may be declining down south, but the signs are more positive in Scotland, writes Eleanor Caldwell

With anxiety south of the border that languages are no longer compulsory and are losing a foothold in the national curriculum, the situation in Scotland is more positive. The report Citizens of a Multilingual World, published in 2000, caused discontent and some misunderstanding that the long-serving policy of "languages for all" had been abandoned. The key word in the report was "entitlement".

The 500-hour entitlement to language learning has not stopped a minority of pupils opting out after S2, but language teaching in primary schools is well established, and Access, Intermediate and Advanced Higher courses ensure that there is an appropriate and inclusive level of study.

Following the report, two sets of new funding were made available. The Languages Fund was paid directly to councils to enhance local provision with new resources, development of 5-14 programmes and continuing professional development for primary and secondary teachers. And the languages and training Innovation Fund invited bids for radical new language projects.

HM inspectors are generally positive about the use of both funds. In their follow-up report in March this year, they point to examples of excellent practice, such as Pimflips in Aberdeen, an immersion approach to primary; the establishment of a learning and teaching resource centre and training suite in East Renfrewshire, and the introduction of partial immersion learning for secondary pupils in North Ayrshire.

Increased support from the Languages Fund has helped to develop much needed programmes for 5-14 through more effective liaison between primary and secondary teachers. Languages are now firmly embedded with other subjects in the primary curriculum, but some secondary departments are still struggling to achieve a good balance. A lot of collaborative work is still needed.

All generally good news, reflecting real progress. But certain difficulties risk undermining the good progress made.

The modern languages in the primary school (MLPS) training scheme ensured that virtually every primary in Scotland had a trained languages teacher - usually for French. But records in 2003-04 show that only 68 per cent of them were teaching a language. The problems were caused by teachers being promoted out of regular classroom work, the need for internal cover and a more general feeling among some staff that 1990s MLPS training had not fully equipped them with the skills needed for the new 5-14 guidelines with their greater emphasis on reading and writing.

Other blips in the system mean that in some areas, where German or Spanish are taught in secondaries, the languages are not taught in primaries, preventing the continuity and progression recommended in the 2000 report.

As a result, much of the money from the Languages Fund has been used to train new teachers, to offer additional training or to employ specialist staff tutors.

The inspectors' document states: "The continuing need for the inservice training of primary teachers... had acted as a major constraint on the amount of funding available to support and improve wider aspects."

The absence of MLPS training in initial teacher training still needs to be addressed.

As the 500-hour entitlement settles into curriculum planning, the view is emerging that proficiency levels in languages should also be more clearly defined. The inspectors recommend that a revised view of entitlement should focus on proficiency and "a minimum acceptable level of competence".

Attainment in Standard grade French at Credit level compares quite favourably with core subjects such as maths and English, but is considerably lower than biology or geography. The proportion of students attaining As and Bs at Higher continues to outstrip English and maths.

Uptake at post-16 is improving year on year. Numbers studying French at Intermediate levels 1 and 2 have tripled since 2001. Spanish has enjoyed a renaissance through Intermediate 1, while German attracts healthier numbers at Intermediate 2.

These trends are reflected in higher education, where there's a significant drop in numbers taking French and German but a rise in students of Spanish.

Degree choice has changed considerably. More students now include a language as part of a degree, for example, law or engineering. Beginner courses now exist in key languages, with departments such as Slavonic Studies not even requiring a prior language qualification.

The Citizens of a Multilingual World approach seems to be changing perspectives. Primary 1s learn about art in French; Intermediate students learn the language of tourist Spain; and future lawyers spend study time at a German university. Languages have become a tool rather than an art form.

Eleanor Caldwell is author of French and German to Standard Grade and Equipe Ecosse (OUP)

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