Lisa Haseldine

The crisis in language teaching

  • From Spectator Life

The British are, on the whole, rather rubbish at languages. We all know people who live up to P.G. Wodehouse’s description of the ‘shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French’.

As more of the world speaks English, our monolingualism is getting worse. According to the British Council, only one in three of us speaks a second language. But it’s not entirely our fault – we’ve been set up to fail by our education system.

The national struggle with languages starts young. The first time most of us will encounter a modern language – usually French – is at primary school, where its teaching is patchy to say the least. A review by Ofsted into the languages curriculum found that, in many cases, instead of being taught grammar and tools to help ‘generate their own language’, children were simply being given phrases and thematic groups of vocabulary without any knowledge of how to apply them outside rigid stock phrases.

Forcing vocab into children’s minds and hoping grammar falls into place just doesn’t work

In secondary schools, teachers often find it easiest to start language lessons from scratch, regardless of a pupil’s previous experience. So it’s back to the same set phrases, thematic vocabulary and sketchy grammar as before. Understandably, many children find this demotivating and soon give up on the subject.

When New Labour came to power, 85 per cent of GCSE pupils studied a modern language. It hit a low of 40 per cent in 2010 and has only slightly recovered to 45 per cent. Just 2 per cent of pupils now study a language at A-level – a third of the mid-1990s peak.

European languages, in particular, are in crisis. Over the past 20 years, the number of children sitting a public exam in French and German has more than halved.

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