We have to end the drift on languages

14th February 2003 at 00:00
Despite 10 years of progress in fostering linguistic skills, warning bells are ringing for ministers, says Daniel Tierney

THERE has been considerable debate in recent months over the position of modern languages in Scotland. Professor Gordon Millan of Strathclyde Univer-sity's French department is right to draw attention to some of the problems that are being identified (TESS, November 8), but perhaps paints too negative a picture.

If we look at modern languages in the primary school it is important to recognise the considerable investment and achievements. Almost 5,000 primary teachers have undergone training which they evaluated as of high quality.

As national development officer, I had the privilege of visiting more than 100 primaries across Scotland. Headteachers reported parental support for the initiative and a high degree of pupil motivation. There were gains in linguistic competence while pupils also enjoyed their language experience - the games, the songs, the stories. To this we can add the gains in cultural and European awareness.

It is right to celebrate these successes. However, we cannot yet say that the job has been done. Indeed it would appear there is some "drift". Some 10 years after the start of the extension of modern languages to all primary schools through in-service training, the issue of an equivalent pathway within the BEd programme at pre-service level has yet to be resolved.

There is also a need for further training for primary teachers who went through their initial training programme back in the 1990s.

Most important of all is the need to ensure primary-secondary continuity. I do not get the impression that there is a clear strategy to ensure that the secondary schools are able to build on what has been achieved in the primary schools.

As for the secondary sector, we forget sometimes in this negative climate what has been achieved. Modern languages have gone from being only for an elite of more able pupils to being taught to all pupils. Less able pupils are now given a worthwhile linguistic and cultural experience. At the same time, our more able youngsters have developed the four skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing, with a particular emphasis on speaking.

However, one major problem remains and that is the national motivation to learn languages. The action group on modern languages recommended an entitlement for all pupils to learn a foreign language and to combine this with persuasion to encourage students to continue their language studies.

This campaign of persuasion has not been much in evidence and indeed the entitlement recommendation has been misinterpreted, perhaps deliberately, as allowing pupils to opt out of languages, in spite of a letter from the minister which spelt out its correct interpretation. It is not surprising that in this climate there is a certain problem of motivation among some adolescents who perhaps cannot see the purpose of learning a foreign language, or perhaps I should specify French.

It is perhaps significant to note that the one language which has bucked the trend of decline post-16 in Scotland and England is Spanish. The latino youth culture is now also popular and young people see the greater possibility of using that language, going to that country. But we should question whether studying one language, even Spanish, is the correct strategy.

It is obvious on the continent that a good knowledge of one language, namely English, is now the best option from a cultural and employment point of view. However, in an English-speaking country like Scotland, is the development of linguistic competence in all four skills in one language, usually French, the correct approach? Might young people be better served by the development of partial competence in two or perhaps three languages?

Given the dominance of English and the extension of new technology, should listening, reading and writing skills be given greater prominence? The more able linguists would still have the opportunity to go on to specialise in languages, although modern languages are under acute pressures in the universities too.

We have reached a critical juncture and warning bells are ringing. The Scottish Executive needs to take effective action on a number of fronts if we are not to lose some of the gains we have made, and if we really believe as a country that modern languages are important.

Daniel Tierney is a reader in Strathclyde University's department of language education.

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