Sunday, 24 May 2015

Languages included on the curriculum in bad faith?

Reading a George Eliot novel recently I noted how musical performance skills and French were cited as the two most important “accomplishments” of a marriageable upper middle class young woman. These two difficult skills were hardly acquired and demonstrated the degree of sophistication and intelligence of a young woman. Usually, such skills were taught by tutors on a one to one basis.

If we wind forward to the modern day what do we find in Modern Schools? On the whole musical skills are still taught on a one to one basis by peripatetic tutors paid for by parents. French and other modern languages, however, are taught in classes of between 20 and 30 at a time, depending on the kind of school. Speaking French, just like music, is a performance skill, which needs practice, drilling and discipline. It is at least as difficult as learning a musical instrument and, like learning a musical instrument, requires the training of the body to behave in certain ways and the “grooving” of pathways in the brain.

The implications of this, in classes between 20 and 30 strong, is that secondary language teachers have to run highly disciplined collective oral sessions which equate to teaching 20 to 30, not necessarily willing, people at a time to learn the clarinet. At the same time, they have to sustain motivation over protracted periods of at least three years and often more.

This being the case is it any wonder that, in any given school, discipline problems will often figure large in language departments and many aspiring language teachers will fail to make the grade? Many will go through their whole careers not really coping.

Placing a Modern Foreign Language in the curriculum is, therefore, something which should not be done lightly. If one chooses to do it one must have one’s eyes open to the implications of attempting to teach such high order skills to all and sundry. This is the situation at present. This being the case, language teachers have no option but to take the masters of the curriculum at their word and attempt to teach the skill in question to all before them. “French” is on the timetable so French it is –assuming that it means the French language and what you do with it. What can one do with a skill but do it? And if it is the skill that has to be taught it has to be done in a fairly uncompromising way, otherwise what is the point? The situation that obtains in schools as a result of this certainly needs some thinking through.

The confusion with what it is that we are apparently attempting to do in placing languages on the curriculum is further evident in the way in which, one moment it is in the core or on the EBAC and then the next it isn’t. I’d suggest that the problem is that schools haven’t stopped to consider what it really is that they want from languages. Are they really serious in requiring the majority of young people to acquire proper oral competence in a foreign language or are they content that the vast majority leave school with a very poor approximation of it that will probably never be renewed, and that at least a gesture has been made towards it?

It is time for schools to get off the fence and either decide that the whole enterprise is not worth the candle or give whole–hearted backing to the production of students who have undergone a rigorous discipline (this discipline, in both senses fully supported by the management of schools) and emerged with an excellent and rewarding life-skill that keys them in at ground level to their own European civilisation. Otherwise it will look as though Languages are on the curriculum for no other reason than because no-one wants to be seen to remove them. That would be rather pathetic.

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