07 April 2012

Languages in schools...?

It's well-known throughout much of the world that the UK has an exceptionally bad record at teaching languages in schools.  Every few years, someone stands up and vows to change this.  Years ago the Scottish education department declared that everyone going into primary school teaching had to be able to teach a second language.  As I understand it, England followed suit shortly after.  What ever came of it?  Not much, because as language is only compulsory for two years at high school either side of the border, and the vast majority of teacher-training candidates didn't have any language qualifications at all, and enforcing the law would have led to a serious lack of primary school teachers all round.

So instead they started special "[insert language name here] for primary teachers" courses, like this one from the Open University.  It's for complete beginners, and costs only £275 regardless of where you live in the world -- that's equivalent to 5% of the tuition fees for a year of study at an English university, meaning it can't be particularly substantial.  According to the site, it can be done entirely at your own pace, so it doesn't seem like you'll get any live tuition whatsoever.  This really cannot teach you enough to turn you into an effective language teacher.  And yet it must be done, to pay lipservice to an admirable goal that is simply too expensive to meet.

Looking at the resources that are used in primary school languages, I can only despair.  Take, for example, Languagenut, a computer-based resource claiming to meet the "Key Stage 2 Modern Foreign Languages" syllabus -- that's an English thing, but they also say that they're aligning to the Scottish "Curriculum for Excellence".

It's a colourful and appealing package, but where is the substance?  This isn't Languagenut's fault, really.  The Languagenut software is nothing more than a repackaging of the most common techniques in computer-assisted language learning (CALL) along with the syllabus goals of the primary curriculum.  The problem is in the whole culture of CALL and the whole system of primary education.  The idea of "games" that involve very superficial matching exercises is engrained in both cultures, as is the concept of "modularisation" that leads to the isolation and compartmentalisation of language, instead of continuously constructing a single large overview of the language.  Even if this compartmentalisation wasn't a bad thing in and of itself (and I certainly believe that it is), the act of compartmentalisation always leads to one resource blocking every other resource out, because no resource can ever be fully compartmentalised -- there will always be an underlying order to the material, and no two resources will follow exactly the same order.  Dipping in and out is usually very difficult indeed.

"Resources" will never be a replacement for a teacher in the classroom.  What is required is teachers who know the material.

But maybe there is a way to get the competence we need, at both ends.  I don't know about England, but in Scotland there's a surplus of qualified teachers, as the government made a point of ramping up training in anticipation of a mass retirement that's due any year now.  Why don't we have a government scheme to get them abroad?  The demand for teachers of English is always high, and these guys are trained and experienced classroom teachers.  When they come back, they'll be looking to teach.  So why not set up a scheme where teaching grads get the first shout on teaching assistant posts overseas, reciprocated by bringing in foreign teaching grads as language assistants.  The language assistant schemes are atrophying at the moment, and could really do with government intervention to prevent the local authorities closing them down as an unnecessary expense.

Certainly, it will take something far more radical than a few ministerial proclamations to raise the standard of language teaching to anything useful. If in doubt, have a look at the Scottish Standard Grade or English GCSE exam papers to see what's expected of you after four years of learning....

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