Why we all need to parlez

13th December 2002 at 00:00
James Roland believes every pupil should learn a foreign language

Hardly a week seems to go by without language learning being the focus of discussion on a national level. Languages teachers seem under constant daily pressure to justify the validity of their subject in the classroom and in the staffroom.

Have our politicians been infected with an anglophile arrogance towards language learning which they intend to pass on to impressionable young people if talk of making languages optional goes ahead?

I believe in the benefits of leaving school with a working knowledge of at least one European language. Especially at a time when few are guaranteed a job for life, and schools need to equip pupils for a constantly changing job market.

Are we really prepared to rob working-class children in our inner cities of the improved self-confidence, interpersonal skills and cultural awareness that are part and parcel of language learning? Often these are the pupils who benefit most. In my limited experience, middle-class pupils who are socially and materially better off already tend to have an awareness of Europe, whether it be from parents making business trips, their own involvement in school exchanges or skiing trips abroad.

It is the lower-ability pupils who are struggling to make the five GCSE A-C grades who will lose out. Some know little about continental Europe save what they've been taught in the language classroom.

On teaching practice in a working-class area of Nottinghamshire, I was shocked to learn that in one class many pupils had not been outside their home county, let alone outside the UK.

Another class believed that England's Asian population spoke French. It is these pupils especially who benefit from group work, the emphasis on communication skills, and the cultural element of language learning.

Pupils are not exam-passing machines. Language learning is a life skill of which pupils should not be deprived. The perception of languages as a difficult GCSE is not reason enough to drop them. Ignorance of Britain in its wider European context is too great a price for improved A-C pass rates.

James Roland is an NQT who teaches modern languages at Fitzharrys secondary school, Abingdon, Oxfordshire

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