Sunday, 4 May 2014

Paying Lip-Service to Teaching Languages.

Why the British are so Poor at Languages

A Head of Modern Foreign Languages writes

“The sentence is the greatest invention of civilization” - John Banville

There are, of course, the commonplaces in this debate. The British are bad at languages because they are not subject to the immense cultural osmosis that makes the Danish or the Germans want to consume Anglo-American culture, or, for that matter, the economic osmosis that makes Poles or Romanians want to learn English. The British are bad at languages because they are made lazy by the linguistic imperialism brought about by the prominence of the largely anglophone United States. The British are bad at foreign languages because of the vestigial arrogance of the British Empire mindset. (Why should we make the effort? People need to come to us). The British are bad at languages because of our natural insularity caused by geography and historical experience. The British are just plain xenophobic…..

All of the above contain a certain amount of truth. However, I don’t believe any of them is the main cause of our perceived weakness.

A colleague of mine in another school tells me that she has frequently been asked, in almost anguished terms, by her Head teachers, why the British are so poor at Languages and why there is such a decline in Modern Foreign Language take-up. She says that her answer now, after many years in the profession, would be – because you don’t want it to be any other way, not badly enough that is. I agree with her that Languages have been allowed to become marginalized because Science, Maths and Information Technology have, similarly, been allowed to dominate in schools. Thus, a line of least resistance, which appears to be a quick fix to the vexed question of what should be on the curriculum, has been followed. In a world in love with technology and subjects which deal with external objects this seems to be the way to go. No parent is likely to quarrel with this but it is wrong.

To understand why, we need to look at what language is. When a child is born a new but inchoate awareness enters the world. Gradually that struggling awareness is given and acquires the means of self-expression. The imprint of language is stamped on his or her being by receiving spoken words from his or her parents. Gradually the power of speaking, with greater and greater sophistication develops. Much later, the further and different skills of reading and writing are added. There is the potential to take these processes on to an extremely high level of sophistication. Why is this acquisition of language so important? Because the existence of language, which designates both things and ideas, marks us out as unique. Language is the proof of our special status as self-aware creatures. Whales communicate with noises but only humans have a complex system of vocabulary, syntax, register and grammar, which enables us to comment on our condition and provides us with endless possibilities of self-expression and endless subtlety in our communications with each other. Language is us and we are language. It defines what we are. Finally, language is to do with inwardness and with something which comes from inside us and is intimately implicated in our humanity.

For me all of this means that literacy and articulacy in our own language should be central to education. From such primacy of English language teaching, it is then a short step to the assumption that the teaching of Foreign Languages, with the understanding of how language works that they bring, might be a valuable enterprise. At least that was how the logic used to go.

Militating now against these ideas regarding the primacy of the linguistic and the literary are many influences. To illustrate this I offer two anecdotes taken from my experience in a private secondary school.

An IT technician who recently advocated the issuing of Ipads to all teachers and pupils (this may or may not be a good idea- I’m not sure) announced that his soon to be born first baby will not need to learn to read or write as computers will do it all for him or her.

And then, recently, I heard from a colleague in another school of a series of meetings designed to formulate marking policy. As Head of Languages he was called to the meeting, which assembled the Heads of English, Learning Support and English as a Foreign Language. At a certain point he mentioned that he assumed the people around the table were, in so many words, the gatekeepers of literacy in the school. To a man his colleagues denied this referring to the fact that all subjects now awarded a small number of marks for SPAG (Spelling and Grammar) at GCSE and that, therefore, all subjects shared responsibility for literacy. This dismayed him as it seemed to constitute a reluctance to take prime responsibility for literacy – a kind of educational pass the parcel where this topic was seen to be, to mix metaphors, a particularly hot potato.

The explicit teaching of spelling, syntax and grammar – in other words the teaching of the rudimentary understanding of how language works through our own language, which was once central to education, has been allowed to fall into abeyance. This has happened mostly by neglect rather than by deliberate choice. Following on from the anti- grammar stance in the nineteen eighties there have been initiatives encouraging the explicit teaching of “Literacy”. These have been largely driven by political rather than educational impulses and one feels they have been largely a half-hearted and skin-deep gesture towards the primacy of the discipline.

In passing, also worth mentioning is the equally central importance of a reading culture. It is true that we do succeed in encouraging some children to take up the practice and to derive the enormous pleasure it provides, not to say enrichment of those readers’ linguistic powers. However, I can’t help feeling that this encouragement takes the form of piecemeal initiatives rather than taking a central position, and these initiatives are always fighting against casually propounded suspicions, of the sort mentioned above, that technology will make reading obsolete.

In contrast to this insouciance about the literary there are two examples of real devotion to it, which have had good results and which set it in relief. In the past, notoriously successful as educational establishments were Grammar Schools in whose name there is a clue as to their success. These emerged from medieval roots in the explicit teaching of rhetoric and grammar in classical languages and, then, the vernacular. They made the assumption, explicit or otherwise, that this lay at the centre of things. Secondly, in the past and in the present, if one looks at the French educational system, one might encounter something that looks like British education from the fifties with undecorated classrooms and teachers sitting on raised daises. However, central to French education is the explicit teaching of French language in an old-fashioned grammar-based way with exercises. Even Sixth Form students taking Scientific Baccalaureats continue to be obliged to study French. It is always interesting to hear our Universities complaining about the illiteracy of our undergraduates. I wonder if the same situation obtains in French Universities. One may ridicule the French passion for their own language as a kind of paranoid chauvinism, unnecessarily fearful that an anglophone hegemony will obliterate it. Nevertheless, one can only admire the fact that they care about it so much and don’t even stop to ask whether the technical teaching of their own language is central.

To home in now, specifically, on Modern Foreign Languages. It could be said that the successful teaching and learning of this subject is a rare bloom requiring special conditions, put in place with real conviction, to flourish. What are these conditions?

Firstly, as sketched out above there has to be current in an educational establishment a proper literary culture. An example of the lack of this imperative is what I have encountered more and more frequently in my 25-year experience of teaching A Level candidates. The examination boards set French texts on the prescribed topics of, for example, Social Exclusion or the Media, which are taken from French broadsheets. I find it increasingly rare to come across a candidate who can even operate at this level of debate, on these topics, in their native language, let alone in a Foreign Language. In this way the whole enterprise is hobbled before we begin. Much of my energy goes into persuading them to read the Times and into explaining the issues in English. So, is it reasonable to expect languages to be taught generally and successfully in the absence of such a culture? Children who don’t know, in the sixth form, what discrimination means, or in earlier years, what a sentence is, or the difference between a verb and an adjective, will struggle to embark on the very different process that learning a second language constitutes to that of absorbing your mother tongue whilst in infancy.

Secondly, there are issues of mental, personal and classroom discipline involved. I recall, when I took my PGCE at Birmingham University, my tutor cheerfully informing me that I had to be prepared to be the nastiest and most unpopular of my pupils’ teachers. This wasn’t entirely sadism on his part. He was trying to convey the message that I would be aiming to teach a very difficult mental discipline to my students. In teaching a foreign language one undertakes to teach a high order skill. The achievement of this requires the drilling of a sophisticated co-ordination of the mind and the body over a range of complex tasks. In this respect there is a similarity to teaching a musical instrument (one might note the important difference, though, between teaching someone to play the flute one to one and teaching twenty-four Year 9s to express themselves in the passé composé in French, all at the same time!). Like a Music teacher or, indeed, a tennis coach, one has to ‘groove’ good mental pathways and habits in one’s protégés. How do these expectations marry with the disciplinary expectations of modern schools, of parents and of the young minds we seek to inspire. Are all of these geared up to such rigour? If they are not, are the expectations reasonable?

Finally, there has to be a lively and unprejudiced curiosity about foreignness and that which is other from ourselves, indeed, an excitement about it, that is not fostered in a climate of suspicion about foreigners or a sense that anything which doesn’t follow the English template is “stupid”. Many of these attitudes come from wider society and the home. Current political obsessions speak a great deal to these issues. For, the act of learning a foreign language involves will, consent and humility. Primarily one has to consent to an act of displacement whereby the lumber room of one’s whole mentality is gradually emptied so that a new mentality, a new language and a new culture can enter it. This requires humility, as an attitude that says that nothing is as good as the furnishings and clutter that currently occupy the room, will be an insuperable obstacle to the achievement of this aim.

If schools lack the conviction to put these conditions in place, merely making gestures in this direction, and, thus, sending MFL teachers over the top improperly equipped, there will be unfortunate results for language teaching. The subject will retain its place on the curriculum more by default than by design, becoming an embarrassment or even an irritation and spiraling down into a soulless zombie version of what it should be. This is a situation into which many schools have already sleepwalked, having forgotten why Languages used to be considered so important. In these cases, and in more cases, should the trend continue, familiarity has bred, first indifference and then contempt. This is a deep malaise. We live in a Science centered world where Technology is considered to be sexy. The result is a vacuum at the heart of that which most makes us human.

Finally, I suppose that what I am saying is, the teaching of Modern Foreign Languages is what used to be called the teaching of an “academic” subject. If what used to be called an “academic” atmosphere (etymologically do these words simply mean a school-like atmosphere?) no longer prevails in many schools, then why are we continuing to pursue what must be a self-defeating and futile exercise? I speak out of a deep love for my subject.

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