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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 May 2006, 08:58 GMT 09:58 UK
School 'snobbery' over languages
By Katherine Sellgren
BBC News education reporter

Dr Jim Anderson
Dr Anderson wants an end to a "hierarchy of language learning"
More must be done to promote the learning of non-European languages in schools, say language teachers.

Learning Mandarin is becoming something of a vogue, especially in the independent school sector: high-profile schools such as Brighton College, in East Sussex, have added it to their curriculum.

And figures from the National Centre for Languages (Cilt) show 3,091 candidates were entered for GCSE Chinese in 2005, up 40% on 2001.

But there are still concerns that non-European languages are regarded as "second-class" options among teachers, parents and pupils.

Dr Jim Anderson, who heads up teacher training courses (PGCEs) in Arabic, Mandarin, Panjabi and Urdu at Goldsmiths College, London, says despite the new interest in "non-traditional" languages, a hierarchy of learning still exists.

Jane Thick
Jane Thick says Mandarin is not always respected in schools

Dr Anderson points to government policy in the 1980s, which did not encourage the teaching of community languages (those spoken by members of minority groups within a majority language context) in mainstream schools.

It was considered best that the communities themselves provided an education in these - hence the thousands of community schools in operation across the UK at weekends and in the evenings for members of minority groups.

Dr Anderson says the national language strategy introduced in 2002 has sent out more positive messages about community languages and the need for diversification.

A question of status

But he believes the legacy of previous policy still permeates attitudes to language learning in schools, with a distinction drawn between foreign languages like French and German and community languages like Mandarin and Panjabi.

If more and more schools teach these languages as mainstream, I'm sure things will improve
Narinder Kaur, Panjabi teacher
"It's a question of status - the message has been that these languages are less important," he says.

"We need to get to a point where we don't think in terms of foreign languages and community languages, where there isn't this sense of a hierarchy of languages, where all forms of language learning are valued."

Too few books

Jane Thick, who is studying at Goldsmiths for a PGCE in Mandarin, says she has witnessed her subject being sidelined in schools.

"Mandarin is not a second, but a third-class language - pupils can't miss any lessons, but they can miss Mandarin. It has a low status in many schools," says Jane.

Narinder Kaur
Narinder Kaur says Panjabi text books are old-fashioned

And she points to the lack of resources for teachers in her subject.

"Compared with French, German and Spanish, you can choose three or four textbooks, with Mandarin there's just one.

"This country is very much behind in Mandarin teaching."

Narinder Kaur, who has completed her PGCE in Panjabi and is now teaching at a specialist language school in Hounslow, west London, says the books she uses for teaching Panjabi have no pictures and are not stimulating enough for pupils.

Nevertheless, she believes there is a hunger for these languages and remains positive about the future.

Shani Dovell
Shani Dovell says there is hope for Mandarin in the UK

"If more and more schools teach these languages as mainstream, I'm sure things will improve," says Narinder.

Her optimism is shared by Shani Dovell, who is working for a PGCE in Mandarin.

"Parents can be snobby and prefer European languages to Asian languages," she says.

"But Mandarin is being pushed by economic factors and I'm quite optimistic for Mandarin."


Dr Anderson says there is a growing "impetus" to develop Asian languages, even if progress is slow.

"For Mandarin this is particularly dramatic - it's driven by the government, the economic and political factors in relation to globalisation and the growing economic force of China.

In an increasingly globalised world... it is essential that all languages are given consideration on the curriculum
David Graddol, the British Council

"As a country we need it, economically and politically, but there are also the social and cultural arguments - to break down some of the barriers of suspicion and ignorance within our own culture.

"It's vitally important that people are able to see reality through different eyes, which is what speaking a language enables you to do, to see the world from another perspective - it gives you another window through which to see the world."

This view is also put forward by David Graddol, who has written a report on languages for the British Council, calling for greater emphasis on languages such as Arabic and Mandarin.

"In an increasingly globalised world, and with the increasing ethnic diversity of Britain, it is essential that all languages are given consideration on the curriculum.

"Mandarin has already started to take a foothold, but others such as Panjabi, Arabic and Turkish should all be given due attention."

The Department for Education and Skills says its national recognition scheme for languages - the languages ladder - provides opportunities for existing mother tongue competence and newly acquired language skills to be recognised.

Call for pupils to learn Mandarin
15 Feb 06 |  Education
School language decline continues
03 Nov 05 |  Education
Call for easier Chinese exams
27 Feb 06 |  Education

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