Education: Foreign Languages? Nein Danke ; the Government's Commitment to Modern Language Learning Is Ill- Conceived, Says Kevin Williams
Williams, Kevin, The Independent (London, England)
The school curriculum is not elastic and not everything that we might consider useful or worthwhile can be included within it. In spite of the interest and enthusiasm generated by yesterday's publication of the Nuffield Report, I believe much of the case made in defence of teaching foreign languages in schools is misguided.
Foreign language learning is often best conducted in contexts other than in school. Research confirms that they are best learned intensively over a short period of time by learners with immediate, practical motivation. The issue of motivation is less problematic in the non-English speaking world. On account of its status as the major world language of scholarship, English is the language for non- Anglophones to learn. The hegemony of English today is really extraordinary. Even a French minister for education has decreed that English is no longer a foreign language, saying that it has become a commodity, like a computer or the internet.
Consequently, the place of modern foreign languages in the school curriculum of the English-speaking world merits a much more modest and qualified defence than much of the rather strident rhetoric to be found especially in official policy statements. In an overcrowded curriculum, we should reduce the amount of time devoted to teaching languages. Policy-makers in the UK should cease to insist that all school pupils spend five years at a subject in which some have no interest or for which they show no aptitude.
So what should these pupils be taught instead? Schools should concentrate on improving the enabling skills of literacy and numeracy and perhaps on other skills such as computing, as well as enhancing pupils' knowledge and understanding of the world. It would also be much more fruitful if schools helped young people to identify and pursue those activities (academic, sporting, artistic) in which they are likely to find fulfilment. In other words, the school could become more assertive in recovering its classical mission to be a schole or ludus, that is, an arena for the pursuit of leisure.
Two arguments have commonly been used in defence of teaching foreign languages in school. The first is the utilitarian argument, and the second is the educational one.
According to the utilitarian argument, knowledge of foreign languages is of direct vocational and commercial usefulness. I do not deny the usefulness of mastering one of the languages of those countries to whom one is hoping to sell goods or services. Yet this knowledge cannot be said to be of utility to the majority of English speakers.
There is a conspicuous lack of hard evidence that foreign language skills will increase productivity and employment. The level of competence acquired by most young people in school would not be of great value in the workplace. After five years' study, only school leavers who are in the top 10 or perhaps 20 per cent of the ability range would have a sufficiently reliable grasp of a language, even for low-level vocational purposes. In Ireland, even those who do seek out and take jobs in areas such as telemarketing usually spend at least a year in further education courses where they engage in intensive language study.
The educational argument in defence of the place of modern foreign languages in the curriculum has several strands. …