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8. Why don't Britons learn languages?

A younger generation of Britons are less inhibited about travelling abroad and living and working in the European Union. But the problem remains that they seem increasingly less willing to learn a foreign language. In 2004, the former chief inspector of English schools, Mike Tomlinson, described Britons as "barbarians" when it came to learning foreign languages. In the same year, a poll of 1,500 British workers conducted by the recruitment firm Office Angels discovered that less than 5% of them could count to 20 in a foreign language, even though a majority of them expressed a wish to live abroad. 80% of the employees who were polled were confident that they could get by at work because "everyone speaks English".

A survey conducted in 2001 by the European Commission discovered that 65.9% of British people could only speak their native tongue - which gave Britain by far the highest percentage of monolingual citizens out of all of the countries in the European Union that were polled. Linda Parker, the director of the Association for Language Learning, explained this situation as follows.

A major part of our problem is that English is a world language and we find it easy to manage in other countries and with speakers of other languages. We live on an island and are not as aware of other languages as those in countries where there are many other languages on their borders. We don't live in a language-learning culture and we rely on other people learning our language rather than making the effort ourselves. 

In 2000, the Nuffield Languages Inquiry highlighted a lack of motivation among language students in secondary schools and found that nine out of ten students decided against studying a language after the age of 16. Yet much worse was to follow in February 2002, when Estelle Morris, the former Education Secretary, announced the decision to remove a compulsory modern foreign language from Key Stage 4 - the stage of the curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds in English schools. Foreign language lessons therefore became optional for 14 to 16-year-olds in 2004. Instead, Estelle Morris stated that the government would be encouraging more language teaching in primary schools to give children an early start. The idea was to enthuse children at a young age so that, instead of being forced to continue languages to GCSE, they chose to do so.

Predictably however, quite the opposite happened. The number of students taking GCSE and A-Level language qualifications slumped, leading to widespread concerns about a 'language crisis' in secondary school education. There have been significant falls year-on-year in the number of students taking GCSEs in foreign languages since the policy was introduced, with drops from 547,189 in 2003 to just 382,228 in 2008.

The biggest decline has been in state comprehensives, and a north-south divide is also developing. In more than 100 of the 150 local authorities in England, fewer than half of 16-year-olds took a GCSE in modern languages. In ten areas, however, mostly in the North, more than three quarters of teenagers are dropping language study at GCSE, according to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. The lowest percentage of pupils to enter for a modern foreign language GCSE is in Hartlepool – only 16.3 per cent. Wealthier areas in the South have the highest take up, but the top authority is Hounslow, West London, where 67.9 per cent took a modern language, a figure boosted by pupils studying home languages such as Urdu.

German is being particularly badly hit at GCSE level. Entries for GCSE German have plummeted from 122,053 in 2002 to a mere 76,695 in 2008. GCSE Grades in German and French are improving, however, which led Dr Mike Cresswell, director general of leading exam board AQA, to state in August 2008 that a select group of "motivated and talented" students were choosing those courses. The exam boards said another effect of the reduced numbers opting to study languages, was that the results were higher than average, suggesting that those taking languages were a well-motivated and talented group.

Greg Watson, the chief executive of the Oxford and Cambridge and Royal Society of Art exam board, blamed the fall in GCSE students taking modern languages on "signals from the outside world". He said in August 2008: "Young people are particularly sensitive to the force that qualifications have. I think you hear loudly and clearly from the jobs market it would be good to have maths and good to have some science. I don't think they hear a very loud signal from employers that a language is required. It is pretty hard to see any reflection of that in job adverts."

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents secondary school headteachers, said languages were considered much harder than most other GCSEs. "The further fall in French and German entries shows that the relative difficulty of modern language GCSE continues to have a damaging effect," he said. "It is urgent that the Government addresses this problem."

Somewhat belatedly, the former education secretary Estelle Morris admitted in 2008 that mistakes had been made in the policy of removing compulsory modern foreign languages from KS4:

With the benefit of hindsight, that wonderful thing, I would have done it differently and delayed the lifting of compulsion until we'd made sure that more resources had been put in and languages had become embedded in primary schools. What I didn't foresee was the speed with which head teachers would allow pupils to drop languages. It also took much more time than I expected to get languages into primary schools.

It's a terrible shame we have had this dip at secondary level while we are making the transfer. I thought it would hold steady while we were introducing languages lower down and I didn't expect so many heads to decide their kids didn't need to do a language. 

In 2007, Lord Dearing recommended that all children should learn a language by the age of seven, and that this should be implemented in the next curriculum overhaul in 2010. Although the current Education Secretary Alan Johnson backed this suggestion, there has been no immediate move to reverse the decision to make languages optional beyond 14 - despite the sharp fall in the number of pupils taking GCSEs.

The language teaching that is taking place is less than optimal. In many schools, children are spending as little as 50 minutes a week on French and 50 minutes on German between the ages of 12 and 14. 'It's very hard to find any textbook which contains grammar,' says Nick Oulton, the managing director of educational publisher Galore Park. 'Parents tell us that their children are learning vocabulary and phrases, but they can't speak the language because they don't know how to put sentences together.' In an editorial published in August 2008 entitled 'Our language skills are a national embarrassment', The Observer newspaper pulled no punches in identifying what it believed to be the methodological problems affecting the teaching of languages in British schools:

Learning languages broadens horizons. That is, as long as they are taught properly. Schools often fail to equip children with anything other than a fragmented, phrase-book command of foreign tongues. Language instruction is caught in a vicious cycle: grammar is eschewed for fear of putting children off and a lack of grammatical foundations means they never reach the level of actually enjoying access to the riches a language can offer - new music, new books, new friends. The subject is made harder, not easier, by learning random phrases with no framework to hold them together. 

This decline in the number of students learning languages at schools has also had a detrimental effect on language studies at university level. Between 1998 and 2002, the number of languages undergraduates at English universities fell by 15%, and a 2003 study recorded that applications to take language degrees had declined by 4-5% per year over the previous decade. University language departments throughout Great Britain have been affected by staff redundancies and closures, and a study by the Higher Education Statistical Agency concluded that language tuition was becoming concentrated in older, traditional universities and was becoming the domain of students from better-off backgrounds.

Once again, it is German has been particularly badly affected. It emerged in August 2008 that only 610 students were accepted on German degree courses in 2007, compared with 2,288 a decade ago.

 Web Links 
¿Puede leer este titular? In an article published in The Observer in August 2008, Liz Lightfoot analyses the failures in education policy that have led to language teaching being in such a poor state in British schools.
GCSE blow for languages, amid new results high Bad news for the teaching of modern foreign languages at GCSE level in Great Britain emerges in August 2008.
Languages still slipping at GCSE In August 2008, this BBC report analysed the apparent decline in language teaching at GCSE level.
Dramatic decline in foreign languages studied at university Writing in The Independent in August 2008, Richard Garner assesses the slump in language learning in Britain at school and university level.

Weiter!Part 9: Launching the fightback

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