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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 March 2006, 16:51 GMT
Changes are needed over languages

In this week's reader's article, Colin McDonald from Dunfermline, who now lives in Montpellier in France, says there needs to be a change of attitude to learning languages.


An enlightening experience for some folk maybe, but for me at least it was four dreary years of stuffy classrooms, conjugating verbs and having to suffer the dusty creatures that were well-versed in making you look as helpless as possible, at the end of which I passed my standard grade in French and vowed never to set foot on French soil so long as I should live.

Boy writing French words on blackboard
Languages are not just for gifted students

Alas, after finishing university and having had the time to reflect upon my adolescent vows, I set out to play a season of rugby in the south of France with the ancient wisdom that at least a few of the basics should come back to me.

Having arrived I was made alarmingly aware of my naivety and the small bank of phrases which I did managed to dredge up such as "Where is the station", "How much pocket money do you get" and "I like the beach at La Rochelle" afforded me pitifully slow progress.

When I finally found someone sympathetic enough to suffer my attempts at communication, and lucid enough to spot the "goldmine" sign written on my forehead, I had to rely on his 11-year-old son who was on hand to translate the paperwork.

Our conversation in perfect English made me look sufficiently like an idiot foreigner in the eyes of the Frenchman.

I believe in Scotland we are exposed to foreign language learning at too late a stage in our development.

'Worthless' qualification

I went to a local comprehensive high school where we were introduced to languages in our first year with some pupils having been taught the very basics of a second language at primary school and others having not, so already there existed two tiers of development.

The resulting standard grade qualification is worthless, particularly for those who have no desire to continue with the subject. It serves merely as another box ticked by the Scottish Qualifications Authority - the motions having been successfully gone through towards gaining an education.

Languages are not considered an imperative component of the curriculum but rather something extra and there exists the opinion that competency in foreign languages is the sole domain of gifted students.

My experience is to the contrary.

I am regularly shown up by people of my own age from continental Europe whose ability and willingness to learn and, crucially, to speak other languages proves that it is not necessarily down to an individual's academic ability in successfully learning another language, but rather the product of a particular mindset.

So for those detractors consider this: there are many advantages to learning a foreign language, not least that we gain a better knowledge of our own language, yet until we change our attitudes and our ways of teaching, we'll be stuck forever learning outdated phrases and singing Allouette.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and are not endorsed by the BBC.

You sent us your views on attitudes towards learning languages.

I would agree with L Smith re lack of understanding of English Grammar. There seems to be a policy of dipping into subjects in Primary -Primary French, Maths, Science etc rather that tackling basics English Grammar, Spelling, Arithmetic etc. When I went to secondary school(approx 50 years ago) one teacher said that all he wanted in the first year was a solid grounding in the basics - the secondary teacher could build on that. What have we got now - vast numbers of pupils who cannot count (without a calculator) or spell. Far less have a feeling for number or punctuate a passage. Last year I spoke to some 12 year olds about fractions - all they knew was shading in 1/4, 2/3rds - they had no real idea of +,-,X or / fractions - and before someone jumps in and says decimals are the way forward they had very little understanding of them either unless a calculator was at hand.
W Stevens, Falkirk

I wholeheartedly agree that educational systems in Britain (and Canada!) need to improve the way they teach second languages in their government funded school systems. The Canadian French-immersion programs are terrific and do produce bilingual citizens; however, the regular French programs tend to be very poor. Again, because only the basic parts of speech are taught in English classes, students in French classes are confused when introduced to more complex French grammar. My testimony to this fact comes from my experience as an English teacher at all levels in the school system and as a French student in the same school system and, as recently as last year, at a Canadian university. The attitude that no one need bother to learn a second language because English is becoming international is one that saddens me. As we all know, and as previous respondents have noted, many of us migrate around Europe and other parts of the world. Only when we learn the languages of the countries we reside in do we fully understand local cultures; translating local ideas into English entails the loss of many subtleties and nuances of meaning and creates a gap in understanding that becomes difficult to negotiate.
Catherine, Thunder Bay, Canada

When I lived Brunei and my children attended the British school there, they were taught French poems and songs by a native French speaker as an introduction to French, in primary school. They loved it and felt 'special' at being able to 'speak' in French. I remember reading somewhere that there is a window for learning a foreign language that is somewhere around the age of six. When I lived in Colombia, the Brits nearly all had problems with learning Spanish mainly because they had never being taught grammar. Teaching foreign languages in schools then has to start at the primary level and English grammar has to be re-introduced to the syllabus.
Ann Rodriguez, Aberdeen

It's tremendously na´ve to think that because "the language of business" is English therefore only having a knowledge of English is acceptable. The stereotypical Brit is someone refusing to speak a foreign language hunting out ex-pat hang-outs to get fish and chips or baked beans yet the most liberating thing is being able to understand and communicate in a different language. Like so many others I also did French to standard grade at school. I sat the exam and passed. When I was 16 I was overjoyed at being able to ask for two ham sandwiches and two cokes on the train to Paris. Looking back it was pretty pathetic. When my son goes to nursery in the next year we will be fortunate that he can go to one where they bring a French teacher in once a week. However, what good will it do if he then doesn't have any formal exposure for another six years once he goes to school.
Stephen Wood, Dundee

I do think that learning other languages would be a good thing, however unlike everyone else who automatically learns English to best "get ahead", there's no one language for us that's of obvious benefit. If we learn French, then that really doesn't help anywhere but France; unlike English that can be used many other places. Perhaps one of the main Chinese languages? There's enough people living there that make it worth while, and with the new trade opportunities it makes sense to try and help people get involved. It also might open up better cultural understanding as well?
Mike, Dundee

I was happy enough about learning German. But we hadn't been taught English grammar at primary school - they assumed we'd pick it up as we went along. So when the German teacher started talking about Pluperfect, Passive Voice and the like, we hadn't a clue what he was on about. He took the view that he didn't have time to teach us both English and German grammar, so we never learned either. Result - I can speak pidgin German (but present tense only), with the right verbs and nouns, but grammar so poor that it is hard for a native speaker to understand.
L Smith, Edinburgh, Scotland

I agree with Colin. Perhaps the Scots educational authorities should take a look at the Finnish system, which seems to turn out entire generations of fluent English-speaking school-leavers.
G R F Souter, Helsinki, Finland

Hmmm I don't want to learn other languages to be honest. I'm quiet happy with the English language and what I a call language, IT. I think at the end of the day one of Britain's great contributions to history and the modern world is a common near universal language for business and commerce. Hence why many countries all over the world speak fluent English. I by no means think others shouldn't learn new languages if they want, but I think it must be choice rather than a must. I'm quiet content to learn about our country and its rich history, I have no thirst to travel outside the UK and all I want to do when I grow old is retire to the bonnie hills of northern Scotland. I have learned about other cultures and their histories but none truly engage me like our own history does. Why do we always look to other nations rather than our own? I have forgotten we once ruled 75% of the known world? We are country of people where world rules once. How about we have a look at ourselves, our country and our history sometime.
Peter, Edinburgh

I couldn't agree more with the basic comment. My kids began learning languages in an English middle school at the age of eight or nine. This gave them both a much better grounding in French and German than they received once we moved. However, as is often the case the higher level of skill was effectively depressed by the other kids in the class without the same foundation. They both did better than I in the end though! On another point I guess one of the issues I found when I was at school, admittedly not recently, was that relating the various tenses etc from French to English was impossible as I had never heard of them in my English class. I had no point of reference. Finally, the next question is - which language? French is fine if you do business in France but is not a much use if you're working in Beijing, Sau Paulo or Moscow. Mandarin, Russian, Spanish and perhaps Portuguese are the languages that should be considered. Even most countries in the EU now use English as the business lingua franca.
Douglas Kinloch, Livingston

I completely agree with Colin. Living in a country where it is not uncommon to speak three to five different languages I am embarrassed by my own skills. Trying to learn to speak German or French as an adult is incredibly difficult whereas my four-year-old is speaking away in German after only six months of being here. Nearly all of the ex-pats I know here feel the same way about their lack of language education at school in the UK and what we did learn is no good in the real world.
Louise, Zurich, Switzerland

The way I see it is it isn't problem with the willingness to learn languages but the competence in teaching them. At my school it took roughly four years to get to Intermediate 2 Level in French. However, in college because I was taught the classical way (syntax then grammar rather than learning pathetic pre-built phrases) I have covered almost as much Italian in a mere five months. Admittedly I am not as confident and fluent however I can already do some of the more advanced things that we only started after three years of French.
J C Pike, Lothians

I agree that the mindset towards languages needs to change but dispute the way this Standard Grade was taught! For many years there has been a listen and speak attitude towards language teaching, not verbs and grammar as I had many years ago. I can read and write French reasonably well and now can listen and get the gist unlike my first visit to France which was torture. My daughter can speak French at a push but she has not had much opportunity recently to use it therefore is rusty. I have travelled Europe and languages are started much earlier, it shows! You can learn a language at any age through total immersion - my Italian is nae bad! Attitude change is essential though to make it a success!
Sandra Ross, Rothes, Moray

I too sat Standard Grade French in the early 90s and it was more of a join-the-dots affair than actually practising the living language. I think there would be a real benefit in introducing languages like French, German and Italian into primary schools as it would give children a better foothold in understanding why there are different languages, and even the origins of their own native language. As they progress into secondary and further education, they will be better prepared to take any multi-lingual skills out into the workplace, in the same way our European cousins already do so. The only benefit, if it even is one, of my French Std Grade is that I still know how to ask for a box of matches, get directions to the nearest hotel, and stop Monsieur Myope from falling down a manhole in the 'Eclair' workbooks! Zut Alors!
Ewan, Lanarkshire

It is a universal problem within the English speaking world, the idea that "everyone speaks English" being used as an excuse not to learn another language. This linguistic chauvinism creates an environment hostile to teaching children foreign languages at a younger age, hostile to training qualified teachers for more languages, and hostile to UK minority languages like Welsh and Scots Gaelic. "Universal" languages have approached death many times. And if this chauvinism does not end, English-only speakers would be relegated to a second division in global commerce and English may fade in the long run like Latin.
Mel H, London

When I was at school we had to learn either French or German. I wonder how many of my old schoolmates use either of these languages today. One? Two maybe? What a waste of time. Another tricky subject was trigonometry. I still have no idea what that was about but I remember sitting with a lump in my throat pretending I could do it for the teacher's sake. Twenty years on I'm now teaching myself to grow food. Isn't that a more worthwhile subject for a human child?
Sharron Coull, Buckhaven, Fife

I worked for three years teaching English to university students in France and must say that they were no better than language students in the UK. They refuse to speak, refuse to participate in class and expected to end up speaking perfect English. At least in the UK, due to smaller class size (at least at university level), students have more of an opportunity to practise, and are more willing to participate. There is also a difference in the way language is taught - here a lot of emphasis is placed on phonetics and literature, which in itself may be interesting, but it does not really help them communicate confidently. In the UK we have more of an emphasis on speaking and writing to enable eventual graduates communicate comfortably in French.
Nicholas, Paris, France

I absolutely agree. Language teaching should start early in primary school. I spent some time in the Netherlands and I was amazed that even children around the age of five could say simple things in English.
Colin Mackay, Dunfermline

It is so true, here in the US as well. We do not teach another language early enough, and expect the rest of the world to learn English so they can speak to us.
Sherry, Ct, USA

I agree wholeheartedly with this article. I've learned more French in the five months I've been living here in Geneva than in all the years I was taught it at school. But I'm still put to shame when I'm out shopping - the assistants can tell I'm British from my terrible French, and will switch to perfect English in the blink of an eye. Everyone here is bilingual, at the very least, except for the Brits and Americans.
Ruth, Geneva, Switzerland

There is an added advantage that Europeans have when it comes to learning English; one that makes the language useful to children/teenagers as they learn and affords them more opportunity to practice their understanding of both formal and informal language. The fact that many blockbuster films, TV shows and songs are in English provides that incentive to learn since the dubbed versions are rarely as good. Internet forums for international interests are commonly in English providing opportunities to read/write in an informal manner. Foreign language teaching has come on. One of my younger relations practices her French by rereading her books in a French translation and by switching the language on a DVD to the dubbed version with English subtitles (occasionally) to help out.
Dom M, London

Like Colin I hated studying languages at school and found that the formal grammatical methods left me utterly unable to communicate in real life. It was only when I ended up in Brazil for six weeks where no-one speaks English that I discovered that I was perfectly capable of learning to communicate in another language. Our schools do us a huge dis-service.
Sally Marshall, Exeter

I couldn't agree with Colin more. At school I 'studied' French for six years and Spanish for four years. My general competency in both languages is poor, and certainly not what you would expect from such a long study of them. We should be teaching other languages to children from as young as nursery school, as is the case in most other European countries. However, I would like to say that if the choice was to continue teaching languages as we are or not at all, some is better than nothing. It always surprises me how much I do actually understand when abroad, compared to my mother, who wasn't offered languages at school at all.
Alison, Edinburgh

My experience of classroom French was similar. I think the teachers know they are on a hiding to nothing. The late start in language for our pupils is a national problem. (By age 11 their peers in the Netherlands will have six years of English, four of German and will be beginning a third language - Usually Spanish or Italian). The model of learning in my day was to absorb dry grammatical rules and learn vocabulary. It was a problem that grammar had not been taught as part of the English language. A final disincentive was an apparent lack of commitment on the part of our teachers. The class included three children who were bilingual, having spent years in French speaking African countries. Two of our teachers seemed to consider that a 40 minute chat with the bilingual kids made a good learning experience for us all. Assuming that we would like to improve our language ability as a nation, this begs a difficult question. After generations of poor language, where will we suddenly find thousands of eager and competent teachers of French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian ....
Steve Holmes, Glasgow


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