Submission to Lord Dearing for his inquiry into Key Stage 4 Languages

by the Education Committee of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain

November 2006

 

Dear Lord Dearing,

I am writing on behalf of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (http://www.lagb.org.uk/).

We share the Government's concern about the decline in the uptake of foreign languages at GCSE, but we have a different perspective from most of your other correspondents because we study language for its own sake. What motivates us and our students is primarily the inherent interest of language structure and use, and practical benefits are an added pleasure rather than the main point. Our diagnosis of the crisis in languages reflects this perspective, and our key message to you is that the best way to increase uptake of foreign languages is to present them as interesting in themselves. We also have a subsidiary recommendation to do with (perhaps surprisingly) English teaching.

1. Languages are interesting.
As you are no doubt aware, foreign languages tend to be promoted to schools and school children mainly in terms of their utility in future life. This is very strange, because no other school subject is promoted in this way. Even in maths and English, the 'functional skills' of numeracy and literacy are embedded in a rich range of material and ideas that are intended to appeal to students' curiosity and to make the learning experience satisfying. Subjects such as history and geography are taught by enthusiasts who do their best to engage pupils' interest. For a fourteen-year old, present interest is surely much more important than some possible future utility.
According to a recent survey by the Languages Subject Centre called "700 Reasons for Studying Languages", even undergraduates, who are so much nearer to career decisions, are motivated more by interest (part of 'personal satisfaction') than by utility.

This point may strike you as so obvious that it hardly needs to be made, and yet it has been missed until recently in the planning of FL teaching at school. As you probably know, over the last two or three decades school teaching has downplayed language structure in FL teaching, replacing ‘grammar translation’ by ‘communicative’ methods. This change was driven in part by innovations in language teaching, but it also followed the demise of grammar and other kinds of explicit 'knowledge about language' in English. More recently (in 1998), FL was made compulsory at GCSE, and the general consensus was that the curriculum should accommodate less academic learners by putting less stress on accuracy and grammar.

The result was a very unsatisfactory mixture of approaches which the KS3 Framework refers to in this way: "A foreign language is more than a huge vocabulary, a phrase book, an elaborate guessing game or a dry academic discipline: to master it, pupils need command of words, sentences and text conventions as well as the skills of reading and writing that they use in other subjects. For some departments, the emphasis on words and sentences may represent a shift of focus, ..." Too much teaching is poor (a point noted on page 11 of the DfES's own report "Languages for All, Languages for Life: A Strategy for Languages"), with too much boring memorisation of useful phrases and unstructured guessing. The syllabus is equally uninspiring, with a very small range of grammatical patterns introduced in KS3 and then recycled at KS4. In short, the structural baby has been thrown out with the grammar-translation bathwater. At one time, the study of languages attracted the best brains in the country (think of the role of Classics in the training of top civil servants and diplomats), but no more.

It is true that studying language structure can be "a dry academic discipline", but it need not be, and the recent experience of KS2 languages shows that it can be vibrant fun. (According to the Times at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,591-2307618,00.html, “children at 1,400 primaries that introduced a language, usually French, in a pilot scheme say that they enjoyed the experience so much that they want to carry on with it at secondary school.”)
    To make the point more concrete, here are some examples of areas of language structure that can be made interesting and fun:

  • Pronunciation. Learning to produce a French or German 'uvular r' (think Edith Piaff!) is a physical and emotional challenge for any 14-year old, and can be made even more interesting by a study of the uvula as part of the learning. In general, producing a convincing foreign accent appeals to the same emotions as drama. More intellectually interesting are larger-scale sound systems - e.g. nasal vowels in French, or different syllable structures. All these things can be taught in an active and exploratory way, with appropriate structure from the teacher.
  • Etymology. Most people are surprised and interested to learn that English tooth and French dent have a common root, and KS3 pupils can discover and appreciate general patterns of correspondence e.g. between English t and German z (ten - zehn, tooth - zahn, etc.) - not to mention the enormous help that such correspondences give in learning new vocabulary.
  • Morphology. Although verb-forms can be presented simply as a drudge, they can also be made interesting. For example they could be turned into a guessing game: given these examples, how would you say ....? Traditional morphological paradigms (tables of forms classified by person, tense, etc.) are very useful tools for this kind of pattern-spotting. Learners could also make the rules explicit by learning to separate endings from stems, and make interesting comparisons with English.  In some countries, sixth-form students are so rivetted by this kind of work that they compete in a 'Linguistics Olympiad' where the challenge is to work out the rules for a morphological in an unfamiliar language.
  • Syntax. Word order is always interesting because it varies much more than one might expect across languages. For example, both German and Spanish are in some ways much freer than English, but German also has the famous end-position of verbs. It can be quite amusing to construct sentences that use English words according to the word-order rules of another language.
  • Meaning. Different languages organise the world in different ways. For example, 'motion' is subclassified in quite different ways in English, German and Spanish or French; e.g. in German fahren is used for both cars and bicycles but not for horses, whereas in English bicycles and horses have the same verb (ride). These differences raise the potentially interesting question whether speakers of different languages think differently about the world - something any teenager might like to consider.

One really encouraging feature of the present situation is that the new Framework for teaching Foreign Languages at Key Stage 2 targets both 'knowledge about language' and learning strategies, so all these kinds of question should be familiar to new KS3 pupils. The challenge is to prepare KS3 teaching to build on the intellectual achievements of KS2.

2. English should boost foreign languages

The Frameworks for teaching foreign languages at both KS2 and KS3 explicitly build on the structures and content of the National Literacy Strategy and its successors at KS2 and KS3. As the KS3 Framework says (page 14), "teachers of English and MFL have often been encouraged to work more closely together, but such cooperation has not always been clearly focused or sustained." This rather understated criticism points to a long-standing tension between English and MFL, which we academic linguists find very strange (though we may understand its historical roots). HE linguistics applies just the same methods and theories to a language, whether it is English or any other language, and research shows very fruitful interaction across languages. We therefore welcome the new openness in FL teaching to the insights of English.
    However, we miss any corresponding openness on the English side. We are aware that the English teams at QCA and at the KS3 Strategy are keen to promote links across subject areas, such as a teaching link between English and Geography, which makes it even stranger that they never discuss the link between English and (say) French. This is a pity for two reasons.
    Most obviously, it undermines the drive to promote foreign languages. FL teachers must be discouraged if they get no overt support from their colleagues in the English department in implementing their common aspirations. And even more importantly, pupils will see that FL is less important if cross-references happen in FL but not vice versa.
    But in addition, FL work supports the work in English. Both subjects are trying to deepen pupils' understanding of how language works ('knowledge of language'), and both subjects are even trying (at last!) to use the same terminology. Cross-language comparisons are bound to support this understanding and to make language structure more interesting. As the DfES's "Strategy for Language" says about primary FL (on page 15), "Early language learning can reinforce literacy skills and nurture enthusiasm that is carried on into secondary schools." In short, FL work can help work in English.

    We hope, therefore, that you will urge QCA and the KS3 Strategy to move towards a new approach to FL teaching in which the target language is presented as an object of interest in its own right, and in which English teaching builds on FL work as well as vice versa.

Yours sincerely,  
                                Richard Hudson