A glance through a German textbook used for my O-level in 1986, but originally printed in 1948, helps illuminate my discomfort. The first chapter consists solely of grammar points; I recall having to memorise them for tests and practise them via the corresponding sentences in chapter two. After O-level, I used the book chiefly as a reference grammar, which is a pity since, by the third chapter, had we stuck with it, we would apparently have been able to translate the likes of Swift, Defoe and Scott into the target language. By page 287, the adolescent is deemed capable of translating the work of the greatest names in German poetry back into the mother tongue. The book makes little concession to language having any purpose other than literature; even the grammar points are illustrated by literary quotes.
A look through the GCSE syllabus for 2000 reveals a different view of the subject. In some ways it has even more grandiose aims than the old course. Grammar is still one; so is linguistic competence; also "offering an insight into the culture and civilisation of German-speaking countries", which presumably covers pretty much the whole of the O-level except for translation. Seven more aims range from use of ICT to improving ability in the native language. The major difference between GCSE and O-level is the emphasis on developing the language for practical communication. Modern languages GCSE offers no notion of anything other than a utilitarian culture. For a linguist with an inerest in introducing pupils to the country in question through the written language, it is inadequate.
Yet, between literary old-style O-levels and the consumer phrase book, perhaps there is a third way. The Nuffield Inquiry has recently called for the teaching of languages at primary level, perhaps by native speakers or those with an A-level. The initial course could be utilitarian and chiefly spoken, to give confidence to many young children who may later feel alienated from education altogether, let alone foreign language learning. This would continue for the first two years of secondary school and culminate in a certificate. The most able would go on to read simple passages and produce sentences, using a more grammar-based approach. Such a course could be known as FrenchGermanSpanish etc Studies; it could include reading and writing basic information about the country in its native language, to provide the cultural knowledge missing from GCSE.
If segregation offends the languages-for-all lobby, let it recognise that modern languages has gone from being "only for the clever ones" to being a bolt-on subject, associated chiefly with foreign holidays, and primarily for those concentrating more heavily on other subjects.
Some may recoil in horror at the idea that education ought to promote a better lifestyle. Yet teenagers live in an age when their media tells them to go out, get what they want and aspire to be something, even if it is just Posh or Becks. Is it not up to education to offer them more than the means to go shopping?
Andrew Fentem is a newly qualified teacher doing supply work in Manchester