Translating languages into the present tense

3rd August 2001 at 01:00
Devices used in classical studies such as a 'corner' of cultural, geographical or historical questions could make all the difference, says David Potter

OR good reasons or bad, everyone in a Scottish secondary must now study a modern foreign language. To say that this policy has brought problems to the average Scottish school is to state the obvious.

At a guess, one could probably reckon that the compulsory modern language has now replaced maths as the most hated subject on the curriculum. There are reasons for this, the main one being that languages are profoundly and intrinsically difficult, and no educational jargon or optimistic moonshine from the blurb of educational catalogues peddling their latest course is going to change that basic fact.

Many pupils find grammatical concepts like future tense, reflexive verbs and infinitives sadly beyond their capacity. And that is before we start on the acknowledged difficulties of any language like subjunc-tives, the fine differences between the imperfect, perfect and past tenses or the convoluted and apparently bizarre word order of, say, German.

Yet Standard grade in modern languages does not oblige a pupil to write a single word in the foreign language. By 2003 this situation will be remedied in that every pupil will have to produce a folio of writing, done in class time, but marked externally.

All right, it's a step in the right direction, but one does not have to be too cynical in order to spot ways in which this system might be abused. A "kind" or "caring" teacher may well "help" pupils in all sorts of ways before the folio is sent away. Still, it is a movement forward and belated acknowledgement that writing in a language is necessary and desirable.

At the moment, the writing paper is an optional extra. During the 1990s, the level of performance veered between the appalling and the shocking. The authorities were obliged to give candidates the paper in February so that they could prepare it by May. Results, however, have improved over the past two years and we must be grateful for small mercies.

There are loads of pupils, often well intentioned and well motivated, who quite simply cannot cope with grammar or the complexities of learning a language. Given the current situation, they must suffer in silence or sadly in some cases in anything but silence, if they happen to be in a bad class containing similarly disenchanted and demotivated pupils, for whom the passe compose might as well be a sulphuric lake on the other side of Mars.

What might just help to alleviate the distress of such pupils and give them at least something to get their teeth into would be if Standard grade in a modern language was to contain a "corner" of cultural, geographical or historical questions related to the given modern language. Such questions could range from "What is the capital of France? Berlin, Paris, Lyons - tick the appropriate box" at Foundation level to more searching ones like "Name the writer of Don Quixote" at Credit.

Such a "corner" would be no more than 10 per cent, shall we say, of the examination, but it could be a vital one, allowing, for example, the more linguistically challenged but nevertheless motivated pupil to squeeze into the upper level at any given grade. More important, it is something that everyone could do. It would be reminiscent of the old days at Ordinary grade Latin in the 1960s when there was always a small section called "antiquities". Those who applied themselves did well - in that section at least. At Higher grade, things could become more demanding, with the marks again restricted to 10 per cent of the total.

These suggestions might just sweeten the pill to a certain extent for reluctant learners of foreign languages, and they would certainly give earnest pupils something to work on and to work for. Pupils do like to feel secure in at least a part of their examinations. They like to know that they have done their homework and that they should therefore do well in this section.

But these are not the main justifications for including a "cultural studies" component in modern languages. The basic point is, why teach a language unless you are also going to give a pupil a taste of the culture?

I spent a large part of my life learning Latin and Greek. These languages, rich, diverse and rewarding as they are (and now sadly all but thrown away by the bogus educational posturing of the past 30 years), also allowed me a window into the cultures that they represented. Such classical ideas and insights will stay with me for ever - and are just as valuable as the languages themselves - which is why we now have a buoyant and vibrant subject called classical studies.

David Potter teaches classics and Spanish at Glenrothes High.

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