The crisis in language classrooms can best be resolved by separating teaching into two strands, says Fred Forrester AS we await the report, likely next month, of the Mulgrew action group on languages, with new 5-14 guidelines on modern languages still hanging fire and with progress on Scottish educational policies stultified by the exams affair, it is time to re-examine the fundamental issues.
Modern languages teaching is in crisis because of a decline in the number of pupils choosing to pursue a language in the upper secondary and because of the failure of the Modern Languages in the Primary School (MLPS) programme to deliver on what it promised.
There is a motivational problem. Native speakers of English are less motivated to learn another language than speakers of the other major European languages. Scottish pupils, in general, do not see competence in another language as being important for their career development. The opening of call centres requiring knowledge of other languages is seen as only a blip in the general pattern and the type of work on offer is not attractive to individuals who have the required linguistic competence.
At the same time, it is now argued that English is not a good base language. It has no grammatical gender, a simple grammatical structure, a relative absence of inflexions and few irregular plurals; it makes no distinction between the formal and the intimate second persons. All of these produce early problems for a student tackling another language.
Furthermore, the aspects of English that would prove most helpful have not been emphasised or even identified in our schools for a very long time, if ever.
The draft national guidelines on modern languages 5-14 suggest a move from "language" to "languages" at primary 6. This is self-evidently designed to confine the MLPS programme to P6 and P7. But the approach to "languages" that is suggested is at odds with the ethos of MLPS, which is essentially an awareness-raising programme with an emphasis on the enjoyment and pleasure pupils may obtain from exposure to a foreign language.
The structured approach suggested for "languages" could not be delivered by primary teachers whose specialist training was limited to 27 days. So implementation would require either a large number of visiting specialists or, more radically, a move towards a new teaching qualification for the upper primary.
So what new light will John Mulgrew and his colleagues throw on the issue? There could be useful suggestions such as specialist foreign language secondary schools, on the analogy of the existing schools specialising in music, dance and sport. Any extension beyond French and German in the range of languages offered might hinge on an initiative of this kind. It is also likely that the action group will have something to say about the future of MLPS and spcialist teaching in the upper primary.
A sustainable long-term solution to the crisis depends on a recognition that there are two strands in language teaching focused on language for communication and language as culture. To some extent this is already recognised in English, where the tension has come to a head in Higher Still English and Communication, but it is equally present in the study of other languages.
In the upper secondary, we are probably looking at two minority strands, with most pupils not involved in either. The communication strand would be for those who sought a career involving modern languages, for example as translators, interpreters and bilingual secretaries. The Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg bureaucracies employ large numbers of people in these categories and multinational companies, especially perhaps those based in Germany, look for staff who can translate company reports into English. There is an increasing demand for those who can translate minor official languages such as Portuguese and Finnish.
Comparatively few openings of this kind are in Scotland, but Scottish secondary schools (particularly putative language specialist schools) should aim to meet the needs of pupils who have the necessary ability and who would be prepared to work elsewhere.
The other minority strand would meet the needs of a sizeable minority who wish to study one or more languages to the point where they can confidently use the language when they travel and also read and write it. I would regard myself as culturally deprived if I could not converse in French or Italian or if I could not read and enjoy Madame Bovary in the original.
Are people like myself in a hopelessly small minority? Well, we ought not to be, because large numbers of people in other European countries adopt this approach and it can be fostered here, too. It is worth emphasising that this alternative strand would not lack rigour. It is my experience that competence in any foreign language requires a thorough grounding in grammar, a lot of hard work and much reading of texts in the language.
This strand would not be about giving people a smattering of a language. It would culminate in demanding courses at Higher and Advanced Higher levels.
What about the generality of the pupil population? Well, we should consider developing the "enjoyment and pleasure" approach and extending it to secondary pupils who do not opt for one of the specialist strands.
However, we should not delude ourselves that this approach will lead to any marked increase in competence. Unlike Luxemburgers, Scots will not learn German and French for day-to-day pragmatic reasons. Rigorous study of languages will be an option, but only for a motivated minority.
Fred Forrester is former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.