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Posts tagged ‘exams’


Language learning in UK schools: what does the future hold?

Recent news that the numbers of pupils taking a modern foreign language to A-level in the UK have fallen dramatically did not come as a huge surprise to me. According to the latest A-level results, there has been a 9.9% fall in candidates taking French, and an even more depressing 11.1% fall in those taking German A level.

This trend has been coming along for quite some time now, but why?

First and foremost, the general attitude to language learning at a societal and educational level is very poor. To native English speakers, languages are often seen as a ‘waste of time’, as ‘everyone speaks English’.  Well, allow me to dispel that notion! Although there are a lot of fantastic English speakers out there, only 22% of Spaniards, 39% of French people and 34% of Italians (for example) can speak English to a conversational level. The rates are higher in Scandinavian countries, but by no means everyone even has a basic command of English, let alone full fluency.  The idea that it is ‘useless’ is even more ridiculous – even if other people do speak great English, that’s no excuse for being the person pointing at things mutely on holiday, let alone for UK politicians and businesspeople refusing to communicate with business partners and policial allies in their own tongue.

Learning a language starts at school

Secondly, languages are not taught well in many of our schools, and are not particularly encouraged. I was lucky enough to study French, German, Spanish and Japanese at GCSE, but there are many schools that only offer French, and even this is not compulsory. Languages are portrayed as difficult and often seen as being less necessary than maths, science etc. Whilst of course maths and science are vital, languages are essential to communication at every level, whether that is your holiday to France or a financial deal between Germany and the UK. Children also don’t start learning a language until they are around 12, when the best years for natural language absorption are coming to an end, and when teens often become self conscious about speaking a new language in front of school friends. I know I was very nervous about my oral exams at school, and still struggle to be very chatty in another language when I know I might make mistakes!

Here at EuroTalk we know that languages are not only essential but also loads of fun! So what’s the solution? Fortunately it seems that GCSE uptake of languages is on the increase, so maybe there is still hope. But from my perspective we need to introduce languages at a much earlier age in schools, offer a wider range of languages such as Mandarin and Arabic (both official UN languages), create a more open culture of chatting in another language without feeling embarrassed and worried about mistakes, and dispel the ridiculous notion that any other language than English is useless. Even if everyone else in the world learns English, we should be ashamed not to return the favour and at least have a go at saying ‘hi’ in their mother tongue.



A Goulash guy in foggy London

If you ever go to Hungary, and you happen to ask someone about a Goulashrestaurant where exceptional goulash soup is served, don’t be surprised if 8.5 people out of 10 reply, “I don’t speak English” (even if they do). The reason is not related to our average IQ, which is fortunately relatively high, but it’s based on our Eastern European bringing-up.

In Hungary people are very shy and inhibited thanks to 40 years of strict Communist breeding. We have been taught to keep quiet and we are very good at this. Even today, a couple of generations later, it’s still coded in our genes and it is a difficult task to laugh and enjoy something without asking permission before doing it.

In our schools the expectations are very high. If you cannot pronounce the “th” sound perfectly by pinching your tongue with your teeth, you fail and go to jail.

No, just kidding, but it’s still not easy to pass English exams.

Teachers compliment-wise are very stingy. They usually don’t say anything laudatory, as it would be harmful pedagogically (based on Russian scientific researches from the 70s, which we have to take really seriously).

If you want to have a certificate in English in Hungary, prepare for the worst – you have to talk about the blue jay’s ritual dancing habits or paraphrase the rules of Malay football in English, subjects that you’ve never heard of in your life and probably you couldn’t say a word about even in Hungarian.

For this reason when a typical Hungarian goes to a different country, it is a challenge to her/him to start speaking confidently in the language of the country she/he visits. We always can see the little guy in the black jump-suit with the pitchfork on our left shoulder, saying, “Don’t even think about saying anything, your pronounciation is horrible, you might even hurt someone.”

Don’t be afraid, the little guy is wrong, take courage and speak!