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UK foreign language teaching hits all-time low

Report laments 'phrase book' standards

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Foreign language teaching in the UK's state schools has been reduced to "the sort of thing you find in a 'get by' phrase book", claims a doom-and-gloom report published yesterday.

That's the conclusion of The Corruption of the Curriculum by Shirley Lawes, which indicates that the government's decision in 2004 to allow GCSE pupils to drop languages has resulted in a predictable decline in the number of kids taking the exams, leading to a "dumbing down" of language curricula "as teachers react to the latest fads to revive pupils' waning enthusiasm".

Indeed, back in 2004, three quarters of GSCE pupils took language exams, a figure now down to a half. To add insult to injury, the government in March declared that kids "should be allowed to drop traditional French and German GCSEs in favour of exams in many languages, but only requiring a tourist's grasp".

Accordingly, Spanish is on the up-and-up, but "only because the country is a favourite with British holidaymakers".* According to Laws, subject leader for modern languages at London's Institute of Education, Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese are also on the ascendant since they're perceived as "trendy".

The upshot is, Laws claims, that languages will become an "elitist" subject, or "the preserve of independent schools", as the Telegraph puts it.

Laws warns: "The knock-on effect on universities in the next few years will be devastating. Already, 30 per cent of all new, young, modern languages undergraduates come from the independent sector, where the study of languages continues to be compulsory to GCSE level. Foreign languages are once again becoming an elitist subject area."

This dire situation has, Laws says, been provoked by politicians' and teachers' attempts to make the curricula more functional and entertaining, "to help pupils appreciate languages as relevant to future business needs or employment".

Laws laments: "They reduce foreign language study to a functional skill that teaches the sort of thing you find in a 'get by' phrase book. It is selling young people short and is unlikely to inspire anyone to see languages as anything other than mechanical and boring."

Bootnote

* I'm sure I'm not alone in finding this rather patronising. It's not unreasonable for kids to want to get a bit of Spanish if they spend their summers hols in Benidorm. Regarding the "mechanical and boring" claim, I was personally subjected to five years' O-Level French torture which was so overwhelmingly mechanical and boring, and bereft of any attempt to explain the potential benefits of speaking the lingo, that it simply reinforced my growing belief that petulant French waiters should be subjected to the time-honoured "wave your passport and speak louder in English" treatment.

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