I remember the moment when we knew we were officially grown up in primary school – during French lessons with the headmaster.
MFL lessons are the norm nowadays but back in my time, French lessons were a weekly highlight, as they meant me and about a dozen classmates spent half an hour learning something the rest of the school did not already know.
As I moved onto secondary school, languages were eventually deemed ‘uncool’ and those who took French or Spanish past GCSE – myself included – were thought to be insane by their peers.
When I think about it, only French got a shoo-in at primary school. Spanish was introduced in the first year of secondary school but even then, all efforts were concentrated on learning and teaching French.
No-one seemed to care about German or Italian and everyone thought Mandarin was a fruit.
Learning French is a current requirement in UK primary schools and the possibilities of school trips, exchanges and overseas partnerships are endless, but knowing how to speak it may not be as impressive as learning more obscure languages such as Swedish, Polish or Japanese.
The number of people learning a language nowadays relies on how influential it is in popular culture – just look at how many people have started to learn Na’vi, just because it was featured in James Cameron’s 2009 epic Avatar – and this can only be aimed at the younger generation, when ‘cool’ is key.
This is the aim of our annual language competition for primary schools, the Junior Language Challenge. Parents have commented that the competition has fuelled their children’s passion for learning new languages and has inspired them to take up different ones as options for GCSE.
I am hopeful that more unusual languages will be featured in the National Curriculum, but unless Justin Bieber turns around and starts learning Mandarin, whether pre-teens take language learning to the next step is debatable.
Where do you think today’s language learning is going? Where can there be room for improvement? And ask yourselves, in ten years or so, will French reign supreme or can Spanish or Mandarin take the crown as Most Popular Foreign Language to Learn at Primary School?
If you ever go to Hungary, and you happen to ask someone about a restaurant 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!
Nine year old Ben Fawcett will be cutting short his family holiday in Disneyworld to take part in this month’s Junior Language Challenge final.
Ben, who is the first pupil from Oakwood School near Chichester to get through to the final, had been due to be in Florida when the final of EuroTalk’s JLC takes place on October 21st.
His mum, Anna, says: “The timing couldn’t have been worse for us. We’re taking the children to Disneyworld for two weeks but Ben and I are only going for one week because the final is in the middle of our planned holiday.
“He’s disappointed but we gave him the choice and he said, ‘No Mummy, I’ve come this far – I want to do it,’ and I’m happy to fly back with him. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. We arrive back the day before the competition so he’ll probably be jet-lagged…”
Holiday plans apart, entering the competition has been a good thing for the Fawcetts.
Anna adds: “Children from Oakwood have made it through to the semi-finals before but not to the finals so Ben’s as proud as a peacock! It’s been really good for his confidence not just with languages but generally. He’s thoroughly enjoyed the competition and I’ve hardly had to remind him to look at the games.”
Having picked up some of the basics of Portuguese and Kazakh in the first two rounds of the competition, Ben is now one of around 40 finalists trying to get to grips with the last JLC language, Luganda.
Anna adds: “I’m obviously extremely proud of him but it’s completely nerve-wracking as well!”
We’re looking forward to seeing Ben and Anna at the final, which will be held at the Language Show next Friday.
Ben’s even made the local paper!
Are there any other semi-finalists out there who’d like to share their JLC story?
When England’s GCSE results came out at the end of August the British press were quick to report on the declining numbers of students taking the qualification in a foreign language: 12% fewer students than in 2010 sat the exam, and this is part of a continuing downward trend over the last few years. The vast majority took their GCSE in French, followed at some distance by Spanish and then German. Even the modest numbers taking Mandarin Chinese and Arabic have tailed off.
So, does this mean that we are well and truly on the road to become a nation of monolinguals, at ease communicating with the world in English, and more than happy to leave our dirty work to translators, interpreters and other specialists in the field? And does it matter?
A reason many UK experts state for learning a foreign language – the utilitarian one – suggests that having a language is good for business. However, I doubt that this has really had much of a detrimental effect on the bottom line of UK plc over the years and it is certainly not a motivating factor in persuading a 13 year old to learn Spanish. Although many employers prize a language qualification, the fact is that most jobs don’t require one.
So what about the appreciation of a country’s culture? Do you really need a knowledge of Italian to appreciate Renaissance art? Or of Chinese to understand the triumphs of the Ming Dynasty? It is entirely possible to promote awareness of these subjects in English.
I do think there are powerful reasons why young people should learn a language and the factors of interest to teenagers – the social ones, the sheer fun of it, the intrinsic joy of reaching into another world – are well set out at www.whystudylanguages.ac.uk. The question is: should all children be forced to take a language up to the age of 16?
Perhaps not all of them, if it depends on our current examination system and the knowledge it equips them with. That said, there are changes afoot in the secondary syllabus, and alternative language programs are also being pioneered in the UK. One of these works like music, on the basis of awarding progress through a step-by-step grades system.
And if formal education fails, many people find ways of acquiring language skills later in life, when they have a clearer idea of what they need to learn and why.