Mind Your Languages; EDUCATION NOTEBOOK
Byline: SUSAN ELKIN
EVA, 17, arrived in my English A-level class from Vienna.
Her parents had sent her to stay in England for her educational development.
She spoke near-perfect English with a faultless accent. So good was her command of idioms (such as 'neither here nor there' and 'on the other hand') and the breadth of her vocabulary that I assumed she was from a bilingual family.
Not a bit if it. Amused that I should think it anything out of the ordinary, Eva told me: 'But I've studied English at school in Austria for five years.'
I spluttered. Thousands of young British people 'study' French or another modern language at secondary school from Year Seven to GCSE - that's five years, too.
How many can even string together a spontaneous sentence?
They prepare instantly forgotten bits and pieces for orals and answer banal, over-prepared-for answers on their exam papers. But stand in a cafe in Calais and listen to British under-21s and most of the time they don't even try. If they do, the accent is execrable and real communication non-existent.
If you look at GCSE exam papers, you can see why. I have a recent Spanish paper in front of me. I have never learned Spanish and I've never been to Spain, but I could pass this. You need only look at the (many) pictures, use a bit of guesswork and apply common sense.
Nowhere on this paper is there any requirement to write a sentence.
In Shakespeare's Henry V, there is a famous scene written entirely in French. It's very short and the French is simple. Shakespeare wanted his xenophobic Elizabethan audiences to understand it and laugh at it.
When you reach this little gem with an A-level English class, my experience - and I've taught this play to hundreds of sixth-formers - is that there is rarely a student who can read the French aloud off the page and make sense of it.
And yet most of these students have studied French for five years and passed GCSE at high grades.
Some are also doing A-level. You could be forgiven for thinking they started last week.
So what did Eva think? Many of the students she was mixing with had passed German GCSE and several were embarked on A-level, but none could hold a conversation with her in her native language. …