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A language crisis: four thoughts

  • 20 January 2020
  • By John Claughton

John Claughton, former Chief Master of King Edward’s School, Birmingham offers some reflections on Megan Bowler’s recent report on the crisis in modern languages.

Nestor, the king of sandy Pylos, is the grand old man of The Iliad. He has seen the passing of two generations of mankind and is living with the third so that he is short neither of wisdom, nor of tales to tell nor of the willingness to tell them, at considerable length.

Sometimes I feel that I am becoming Nestor: the fact that I think in these terms is proof in itself of Megan Bowler’s thesis that the study of languages enriches our life’s experience. After all, I learnt Latin and French – a little – in the 1960s, Latin and Greek – a lot – in the 1970s, taught Latin and Greek – a lot – in the 1980s and 1990s and, in the 21st century, was head of two independent schools where language provision was of central significance. And, whereas Nestor had two sons, I have three, of whom two studied languages at university and, of these two, one has become a teacher of French in a Birmingham grammar school and the other is working with Syrian refugees in Coventry. Part of that work entails the teaching of English. And next Monday I make my debut as a teacher of English to refugees in Birmingham. That’s seven decades of labouring in the linguistic vineyard and that’s easily three generations.

So, in those decades I have lived much that Megan’s paper describes: the decline and often extinction of Classics, except in the sunlit glades of independent schools, and the gradual but constant decline of the teaching of modern languages, even in selective grammar schools. In Birmingham, the outstanding grammar schools of the King Edward’s Foundation are only keeping A-Level languages alive by sharing staff and pupils. In many such schools where STEM is the king not the poor relation, there is little room for a language in GCSE choices and the return to 3 A-Levels has been another blow to languages provision. Since this is so, modern languages departments are often the most vulnerable during times of economic stringency. Sadly, one obvious answer to this problem, the introduction of the International Baccalaureate Diploma, which requires the study of a language by all students, has been rendered all but impossible in the state sector by those same funding pressures.

Not only is Megan’s analysis correct, but so are her key recommendations. However, I’d like to offer four additional thoughts. The first concerns the teaching of languages, not at GCSE, but in junior schools. Of course, language teaching is a decreed necessity, but in junior schools it does not matter like numeracy and literacy matters – and Ofsted does not measure it – and there are few teachers who believe they can do it well. So, it gets squeezed to the margins and I doubt many of those in the room, grown-up or not, enjoy it much. Then it gets worse. Furthermore, whatever is taught at junior school is rendered largely worthless by what happens next. Because the pupils do different languages at different junior schools, everyone has to start all over again as soon as they get to senior school. In his first Year Seven French class, my teaching son had 30 pupils who had studied seven different languages at junior school.

So, the first thought is that junior schools could find value not in teaching a language, but in teaching about languages. It must be possible to construct a pupil-friendly (and teacher-friendly) course which deals with how languages work, how they are alike and different, how nouns and verbs behave and misbehave, etymology and derivations, code-breaking. If that is what junior schools offered, the pupils might actually become engaged in Year 7 with a single language, and then might enjoy another one a bit later.

This first thought connects with the second thought. Just as my son’s inner-city Year 7 class had been taught seven different languages at junior school, so at home they spoke ten different languages, some Indo-European, some not. At a time when we worry about the demise of modern languages, we have more bilingual pupils in our schools than ever before, especially in our multi-racial towns and cities. And yet, we seem to treat the percentage of EAL (English as an Additional Language) pupils in a school as something negative and ask them to leave their bi-lingualism, or even multi-lingualism, at the door. So, the second thought is that we should be using this linguistic richness to strengthen language teaching. It’s a fascinating game to compare the conjugation of the present tense of a Latin and an Urdu verb – and it continues to cheer me up that Punjab is made out of two words, ‘panj’ and ‘ab’ which can also be glimpsed in Greek’s ‘pente’ and Latin’s ‘aqua’. And, if our pupils have such linguistic strength at such a young age, why are they not populating university language departments? And why are they not our future ambassadors in Kabul or Warsaw or Mogadishu?

The third thought also connects to the second thought, even if it takes us beyond the school gates. In many parts of this country, the biggest issue in language teaching may not be the decline of French or the death of Latin. Rather it is the teaching of English in migrant communities where, very often, the adults, particularly the female adults, lack the proficiency of their children. Since confidence in English must be a key element of community integration, perhaps schools need to be thinking how they can use their expertise to educate parents as well as their children. After all, quite a few of our teachers will be TEFL-qualified (Teaching English as a Foreign Language).

The fourth, and final, thought is not connected and it is not about pupils or their parents. It is about teachers and schools. Once upon a time, Latin prospered not just because it had always been taught since the 16th century, but because it taught things that were perceived as worthwhile: accuracy and flexibility of thought, an understanding of a language’s structure, the underlying meaning – and spelling – of words, even contact with great literature. It was the handmaiden of English and modern languages, as well as being a treat for some of us. These days, English teachers have to teach all that grammar – fronted adverbials in Year 5 or 6 – reluctantly, which is not a fronted adverbial, and on their own. Perhaps language departments and language teachers, of English, ancient languages, European languages, non-European languages, need to work together as a faculty, co-ordinate their teaching and their methods and show how each supports and enhances the other. After all, science has been doing just that for years. At the end of Toy Story 3, Woody, Buzz and the crew are going down the chute to the furnace and extinction. Woody, Buzz, Jessie and Bullseye take each other’s hand – or hoof – and are saved. Perhaps that’s the way out of this.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    Really interesting and engaging commentary.

    I totally agree with all 4 points and am very supportive of students in both primary and secondary schools continuing to learn the languages spoken at home at school.

    As the son of an Italian mother my secondary school helped me get an Italian O level.

    More schools could easily get students to get GCSEs and A levels by building on languages spoken at home and parents should be encouraging their children to learn their parents’ mother tongues.

    For some children from disadvantaged backgrounds, learning a language spoken by their parents and grandparents, offers them the possibility of getting an additional qualification if only the school would continuing teaching it.

    I believe this would help with integration and encourage the parents to learn English where this was needed. Schools need to be part of their communities.

    In a post Brexit Britain we should be promoting the teaching of Commonwealth Languages which may, in the future, be more commercially appropriate than European languages.

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