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Just because secondary students find foreign languages boring, doesn't mean they shouldn't be compelled to learn them.


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Laura Swinton, Friday 15 December 2006 19.33 GMT Jump to comments (22)

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Compulsory foreign languages for the over-14s might be off the national curriculum, but University College London isn't interested in tongue-tied teenagers. By 2012 a GCSE in a foreign language will be an entrance requirement for the university.

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When Estelle Morris, then education secretary, decided to remove the obligatory language GCSE, she said that it was far more important to start teaching languages at primary school. I am a big fan of the "get 'em while they're young" philosophy. But while we wait for primary school initiatives to kick in, the government has created a lost generation condemned to holiday communication via frantic mime as language uptake slumps. Lord Dearing's review, published yesterday, says that languages should be made more available in secondary schools.

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Enforced language lessons at secondary schools are elitist, claims Peter Wilby, writing yesterday. The irony is that, when independent schools are making languages like Mandarin and Japanese compulsory, state educated children are losing out. He also suggests that they are irrelevant; everyone speaks English now anyway, don't they? Well, unless you count 65% of France, and, as Martin Jacques points out, the millions of people outside of Europe who have not had the opportunities of the wealthier classes. Never mind, they're probably not worth speaking to anyway. Who's being elitist now? The long-term benefits of learning a foreign language go well beyond being able to chat up French birds during a stag weekend in Paris. Teenagers' inadequate verbal skills are causing concern; a recent study suggests that British teenagers have half the vocabulary of 25- to 34year-olds. How better to break down these communication barriers than studying the subject that gets them talking? Spending endless nights going over and over and over pages of new vocabulary might, like Chinese water torture, drive you to the brink of insanity, but it turns out that studying a second language is actually quite good for your brain. One study even suggests that being bilingual can protect mental faculties from deterioration in old age. But Wilby is right about one thing. Learning languages can be boring. Sometimes it is because of uninspiring teaching. In that case, make the lessons more relevant and interactive. It's natural for pupils to be intimidated by a bit of hard graft. Who wouldn't prefer messing around in the art department to conjugating verbs? But letting them off the hook now will cause regrets later on. Just because you don't enjoy Spanish at the age of 13, it doesn't mean that by 16 you won't have discovered a hidden enthusiasm. It was only by the time I finished my Standard Grades that I got a hang of French - a language that eventually led me to work in France, do a degree in Chinese and take up Japanese. Most teenagers won't take languages on to A-level or university level, but a GCSE provides enough residual linguistic

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tomaszek 15 December 2006 7:50pm


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My language lessons were tedious and awful, and to compound this, they were teaching me French, which is a language I have rarely needed.

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The real question is, seeing as I am a person who in his late 20's gets told I have a talent for languages, how the hell did they fail to teach me? Perhaps the answer is too take the same approach to languages that we take to PE.

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Instead of having an emphasis on grades, merely make it a part of the syllabus which we accept should be compulsory, but a time during the day that kids should enjoy. As soon as languages become picked at and crammed for, they loose all of their natural allure...

Bochi 15 December 2006 8:28pm


There's not a deal of use in forcing kids to learn another language unless they can cope with their own. You could make a good case for "forcing" all secondary school pupils who are not meeting standards in basic English to do remedial classes in basic English instead of classes in French. Similarly we might do well to "force" pupils who cannot meet standards in basic Mathematics to do likewise before they can study subjects that might require them to use numbers. I'm not suggesting everybody be crammed with "reading, writing and arithmetic" at the expense of all other studies, but it's so important to be able to do those things, that those who can't manage them ought to be given much more help to do so,

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That said, all children ought to be able to study languages if they want, and have a choice of which they want to study, too. I am not convinced that all children should be made to study a foreign language, but we ought to have a system where most of them do. So for those who don't want to do languages, it's a question of whether the alternative is challenging and worthwhile, or an easy ride.

biba2mejico 15 December 2006 8:36pm


"Spending endless nights going over and over and over pages of new vocabulary might, like Chinese water torture, drive you to the brink of insanity.." "Who's being elitist now?"

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Really who has no idea of how the other half get through school? ... hands up all those former secondary modern and comprehensive school students who never did more that 15 minutes copying of homework per night Monday to Thursday.

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I wouldn't be surprised to hear that 20% of school students never do homework. What a waste of a column. Get kids learning language at 3 years of age.

BigYank76 15 December 2006 8:39pm

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They tried to teach us French when I started in the second grade, it din't seem to take hold with many of us. When I went to college a second language was required so I studied German. Found it to be quite fascinating and ended up with German as my minor for my BA in History. Living in America though I haven't had much call to use my German and alas have forgotten most of it.

MrBullFrog 15 December 2006 9:16pm


bib2mejico - it may be true that younger children *can* learn a foreign language more easily than older people can - although there are many caveats to that - but in the present schooling system, they are unlikely to be able to do so. Where, tell me, will you get the teachers? Where will you get the time? As I said on another thread, this has been tried, both in England and in France, and in neither case was it demonstrated that it made enough difference to make it worth the while. In England, many of the pupils were so turned off by the experience that all they wanted to do when they got to secondary school was to drop the langauge. In France, children who have followed lessons in primary school have not acquired sufficient language by the time they reach secondary school to remain ahead of children who have not been in the programme for longer than six months or so. In fact, older learners are quite good at it, because they know what they want. They may never get the accent right - why should they? - and they may continue to make grammatical errors (so do the younger learners) - but the make the effort to acquire the vocabulary, and they make sure that they use the language, which is the surest way to achieve some degree of mastery. Leave languages to those who want them, when they want them; school in general makes a mess of them.

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As to the cognitive gains that learning a language supposedly gives one, I find it hardly surprising that using mind and memory makes the brain work better. Gains can be made by learning to play a musical instrument, by doing recreational maths (Martin Gardiner is your man) or by enthusiastic following of the sports team of your choice, all of which have the added benefit of being pleasurable.

redsquare 15 December 2006 9:27pm


Who cares what stroppy adolescents think? The more hard work they get the better whether they like it or not and of course most children won't like it what a surprise. Well said Laura, I'm sick of patronising lefties going on about elitism from the perilous heights of Guardian Towers, home of the Establishment. How are you going to meet interesting guys and gals if you can't speak their lingo or at least give it a try. Got any better reasons?

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tomaszek 15 December 2006 10:16pm


Actually redsqaure, the few times that my French WOULD have come in handy, were when I met fit French women and COULD have regailed them with witty witty repartee. As it was we spoke Globish and I didnt get to sleep with them. They should make the link between language skills and getting laid clear to adolescent boys.

LauraSwinton 16 December 2006 12:43am


I agree that language teaching in secondary school can often be really unexciting and that some people don't discover an interest in languages in later life because of this. In these cases I think the best remedy would be to improve the teaching. Many of my friends for example, never really used their foreign language after GCSE, but have retained a smattering of vocab and a general idea about how languages fit together. Similiarly, when I did my Standard Grades, we had to do a science subject. I always knew I was never going to seriously use science in my life, but I have enough basic knowledge to get the jist of health and science related news stories etc. Education shouldn't just be about ticking boxes and churning out employees of the future but encouraging people to gain a broad range of experiences and knowledge, and develop the skills to understand the world. And....I know I should just rise above it, but I will reply to biba2mejico: "Really who has no idea of how the other half get through school? ... hands up all those former secondary modern and comprehensive school students who never did more that 15 minutes copying of homework per night Monday to Thursday." The other half eh? Which half would that be then? I went to a comprehensive (not that it should matter, but for some reason it does to biba2mejico). While, like most kids, I did my share of rushed homework sessions first thing in the morning at registration, I also (like a lot of kids - surprisingly enough) had a work ethic when it mattered.

newsed1 16 December 2006 2:24am


We are very mixed up in the UK by this. When I was at my comp, my English lessons didn't progress much beyond whole class reading. I never had formal instruction in how to write an essay or in grammar or spelling. Not 30 feet away the French class was equipped with hi-tech kit and the lesson were very formal. Vocab, verbs, adverbs and even correct accent. Of course, none of us had been to France, or even met a Frenchman so the whole thing might have been a giant hoax as far as we were concerned. And the stark contrast between 'English' lessons and learning another language was extreme. (Imagine English lessons that formally added to our vocab and tried to correct our Lancastrian accents!) Languages are very hard for ordinary UK children because we don't learn our own language in formal, mechanical terms. And I remember what is was like to be a working class child doing no more than enough. A foreign language was just too esoteric for words.

BriscoRant 16 December 2006 3:55am


My school had compulsory French til I was 16, and it was not a bit of use. On holiday in France, what the school taught, were not the things I wanted to say. At uni, no french language papers came my way. No french birds desiring to be chatted up - and the ones whom I met, spoke good English. In my 40's I started taking an interest in cycling advocacy. One of the projects our club did, was finding secondhand bikes for refugees settling here. The first lot we helped were from Congo, so French came in useful, explaining things to them. What we were interested in was providing support for refugees, and knowning French was a key to that. Someone overheard these people speaking to each other on the bus, recognised the language, and a conversation started. And with the bikes, we could explain one or two things to them. Another African family I know spoke good English, but French was useful there too. It was a good conversation topic, and they were able to lend me books in it, which were good to read. Also the occasional french word came in useful to explain an unfamiliar english term - odd what one remembers. Currently the bike club gives bikes to Sudanese - they're Dinka people from southern Sudan, same as in the slide show on the Guardian's arts section today. converted by

They speak Dinka not French, but Dinka includes the same international phonetic characters, we had to learn to do French. So being taught French at school, I can get a handle on their language also. If I need to jot a name down, it's good to try to get the Dinka version, rather than the anglicised one - and knowning French, I can try to do this. Important. If you look at the photo captions, you'll see the word 'cattle camp' a lot. Thanks to being taught French, I can follow a web-based Dinka dictionary, and so can show off here and now my knowledge of the Dinka word for cattle camp ('wut'). What interests me is the contact with refugee groups, and the French I learned at school, helped facilitate that. I don't need to speak it much, but it helped in many other areas. So learning languages, can have unexpected benefits.

basildon 16 December 2006 7:48am


So Tarquin and Clarissa get to study Chinese and Japanese, while Dwain and Armani are condemned to monolingual oblivion? Does it really have to be like this? Because of a lack of enthusiasm for learning foreign languages Britain is now 'the thick man of Europe'. If it's that important though to learn French, German and Spanish, why not get with it and actually send the kids to the countries where these languages are spoken. They could do six months to a year of language immersion while living in host communities. Of course, they'd have to be separated from one another to avoid hanging out together and speaking in English. British teachers of these languages could be assigned to local schools to ease the British students' culture shock and to orientate them. The British foreign language teachers could also improve their own language skills while teaching English in the local schools... surely this is not an impossible project to manage in our borderless Europe. The dividends would be fantastic and you could overcome the problem of irrelevance in foreign language lessons once and for all. No more 'This is a pen' and more of 'What are you doing this weekend?'

eddieareader 16 December 2006 8:19am


According to her profile, Ms Swinton, with her degree in Chinese (rather than a degree obtained in China), writes in English. Why? Market forces - mysterious things to Guardianistas. She demonstrates, yet again, the irrelevance of academic education. I did 'O' level French (sign of my age) in a West Midlands accent. Having discovered what a waste of time (poorly paid) a degree in engineering was I went to work for a French company (my main attribute being the fact I spoke English). I spent my time with French and Italian drilling crews where - guess what - I learned French and Italian, enough to get by anyway. Necessity is the mother of learning not some stupid can't do academic assessment. For academics, learning is what they do. For normal people, a reason is required.

worldshatterer 16 December 2006 9:02am


Without a complete overhaul of language and english teaching at secondary level, calls to go back to compulsory language GCSE's are pointless . As newsed1 points out, we teach languages in a much more mechanistic way than we teach english. Perhaps if students were taught the framework of advanced grammar, vocabulary, tenses etc for the english language they might stand a chance when forced to use them with another? On a more personal level, i took Spanish at AS and A2 about 5 years ago . The languages department at my 6th form wanted to close down the Spanish courseone of the reasons being we were failing to secure the consistent A grades that the German and French were . It was only when i asked a friend on the other course why that we discovered that well over half the students on said courses were fluent native level speakers, who'd gone for a course they knew they couldn't fail . Those of us on the Spanish course had had to rely on our academic instruction, shockingly we did not do so well . I cannot help but feel that a lot more effort needs into getting anyone taught languages in our school to actually be able to speak it, as opposed to handing out easy grades to people graced by fluke or privilege .

israelvisitor 16 December 2006 9:52am


I did French to O - Level at public school in the 60s; I assume everyone else, like me, had started at seven or eight at prep school. I remember we read a rather moving French story or short novel about a German soldier billeted on a French family in WW2 - I've forgotten its name. I was a lot better at reading and writing the language than at listening to or speaking it - the language laboratory etc. baffled me. But (before and after getting the O - Level)I enjoyed visits to France and using the language. Travelling in Europe in the 70s, though, disabused me of the notion that French is of much use there outside of France / Switzerland / part of Belgium. converted by

Apart from English, German seemed more commonly used. Doing the O-Level syllabus, ours was not to question overmuch what it was all for: ours was to pass those exams, or else it would be the end for us, in some grim though unspecified way: this had been spelt out to us since the age of ten or so.

kakihara 16 December 2006 11:04am


As people have pointed out, there's something seriously wrong with the way foreign languages are taught in the UK. I had the benefit of growing up in a bilingual home and in my 20's had to learn Japanese out of necessity - And I'd like to think I'm fluent... But even after 6 years of 2ndary school French and ending up with an O-level in the subject my communication skills in the language are remedial at best. From what I recall, French was basically taught as being spoken by English people who used funny words, not by members of an entirely different culture (hope that makes sense) and no-one really saw any need to become fluent. It came across as more of a mental excercise, like arithmetic, than a means of communication. Without emphasising the underlying culture we reinforce that very British sentiment that all foreigners are just being bloody awkward by not speaking English. (Oh, and the books were abysmal - Mnsr et Mdme Blance et leur sodding singe, Micki, or whatever.) Which leads me to a minor rant about French. Why? I mean, why choose French as a second language at all. Posters have suggested Hindi as a possible alternative (good idea IMO) but I'd have to suggest Spanish - Same writing system, relatively straightforward, spoken in FAR more countries than French and, significantly, tha language of one of the UK's favourite holiday destinations.

mojito 16 December 2006 12:45pm


It seems so clear to me that learning a foreign language should be compulsory until at least GCSE level, if not A level (or the Baccalaurate if that is finally adopted). In Spain, both English and French are compulsory to the age of 18, and English is also introduced to primary school pupils at the age of 6. But, Spain sees itself as being firmly integrated within Europe, and we can see how Britain differs, can't we? Government policy shapes attitudes; if languages are compulsory and are seen as integral to the school curriculum, the attitudes of pupils, parents and society as a whole will change accordingly. So we haven't got the teachers - well, train some good teachers, for god's sake. That didn't stop the government on their pledge to get more Maths and Science teachers in schools a while back, did it? The problem lies with how languages are perceived by a Government that thinks of Britain as being on the edge of Europe. I believe that the attitude of schools, teachers and pupils are a symptom of this. Many pupils (myself included) saw Maths and Science as being irrelevant and boring. But, in the time of Kenneth Baker, having a Maths and Science GCSE was imperative to success at school, so we shouldered on. That is how I want languages to be seen. Also, another point re teachers. Get some native speaker teachers in our schools. A native speaker teacher will always be more proficient than a teacher speaking a second language. Government initiatives are the key.

Shlomit 16 December 2006 2:18pm


I am teased by your notion of "compelling" anyone to learn anything. Apart from successfully brainwashing them, I would not have thought it possible.

bobdoney 16 December 2006 3:28pm


They'd be better off learning the clarinet.

israelvisitor 16 December 2006 3:35pm


A native speaker of a foreign language, teaching in a school here, would also have to be pretty confident, well-organised and capable of class control, etc. Not just any young (or not-so-young) person is up to this - as legions of Brits teaching English abroad, my past self included, will have come to realise. One thing that can surely be used to galvanise the interest of the young, or anyone with a potential or actual interest in other languages, is the instant availability of foreign language newspapers on the Internet.

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16 December 2006 8:49pm

israelvisitor: re native speaker teachers. Yes, of course, though TEFL teachers abroad (of which I was one as well!) tend to teach in the private system with only the month's CELTA course as training. In order to teach in the state system (at least in Spain) you need to have QTS status, which of course is only gained through a BEd degree or PGCE. The equivalent of this qualification would of course have to be the prerequisite to teach in schools here.



16 December 2006 10:14pm

"I am teased by your notion of "compelling" anyone to learn anything. Apart from successfully brainwashing them, I would not have thought it possible." Shlomit, I never agree with you in the political realm, but you are absolutely right about this. I guess that by now we all know Czechs, Hungarians and Poles who were forcibly taught Russian at school and who successfully managed to retain none of it at all. Something that gets left out of most of these discussions is how beneficial it is for children to learn two languages, as opposed to only one, when they are very young. It actually makes the child cleverer. No need to go into why, it just does. And the place for this to happen most naturally is at home in immigrant or first-generation-British communities, where the child can learn both English and the language spoken more intuitively by one or both parents. The child's command of English will become fluent a little later - we're talking six months or so - but it will be just as good in the end. And this double mastery of language lays the foundation for learning more languages. This should be the cause for a robust pride among parents in their home-languages, and it argues for their passing-on these languages to their children to a high level, confident in the knowledge that this will not disadvantage the child in any way.



17 December 2006 5:02am

welcome to monolingual Britain, where every language pales into insignificance beside this wonderful and lustrous language that is the beloved english....... As long as the UK (and britons) consider learning another language a concept quite alien to the normal way of things you'll be up sh8te creek w'out paddel, lad learning another language is not about conjugating verbs, it's about saying things like "hello, how are you" and "I'm fine thanks" without requiring 4 years of a priori study. Start them young and it will not be a problem at 14 years old - it will be a choice, just like sleeping in art classes. Come on kids, let's drop art because it's totally useless

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Just because secondary students find foreign languages boring, doesn't mean they shouldn't be compelled to learn them.