I recently read this article in the Guardian, about language learning in the UK and how 80 per cent of those who studied popular languages (French and German) at school are now unable to understand more than the most basic phrases. The knock on effect of this is that less and less teenagers are opting to study languages at A-Level and beyond.
This article really struck a chord for me. As a child, I was good at languages. I started learning French aged eight (which was almost unheard of in the UK at the time) and went on to achieve French, German, Italian and Russian GCSEs, followed by A-Levels in French and Russian and a BA in French. Not bad, right?
Well, now I can just about say hello, count to ten and ask for directions in German and Italian. I can read the Cyrillic alphabet but often don’t understand the words I’m reading (despite having written an extensive essay on women’s rights – in Russian – for my A-Level exam) and my French is now at conversational level… Why is this? For ten years of my life I studied languages. At school, I was good at learning new languages quickly and proud of my achievements. Certainly there were others who were more skilled than me, learned faster and had flawless grammar but I could be understood, which I think is the main thing.
For me personally, there were two issues at play… A lack of confidence and not enough time spent practising. During my school years of course, oral tests were frequent and although I was often terrified of making a mistake, not practising was not an option. Fast forward to university years where I didn’t make the effort to practice speaking German, Italian or Russian (despite many opportunities) and many of the modules I chose for my French degree were delivered in English. So while did have conversation classes, the essays I wrote analysing French literature were in English. I took a fascinating linguistics module… that was delivered and tested again, in English and when I moved to France for a year what did I choose to do? I taught English! I did speak French with my peers but also spent a lot of time with my English speaking friends. So, who is to blame for my lack of language skills? Well, me! Had I spent more time in conversation classes, sought out study groups, only taken modules delivered in French and spent more time speaking French while in France, I would be much more proficient than I am now.
The thing is, I am probably not as bad as I think I am. I’m told by French friends, when I work up the courage to chat in their mother tongue, that I sound Parisian when I speak French and although my grammar isn’t always correct, I am understandable. If I’ve had a drink or two I am fairly fluent. Of course all this means is that I lack confidence. The more I speak, the more I’ll learn, right? It’s just a fear of getting it wrong that holds me back but what’s the worst that can happen?
So, to hopefully give my son more confidence when it comes to language learning and to remind myself how much fun language learning can be, I’ve started taking him to a French class at a local café. It’s a combination of storytelling, playing games and singing and importantly, he has no idea that he’s learning. For him, memorising vocabulary isn’t hard work, simply because he doesn’t know he’s doing it. I wonder whether this playful approach could work as well with teenagers, who seem to be finding that learning a language is not what they signed up for. They want to speak and be understood, not spend hours writing essays in exam conditions. More of an emphasis on the oral examination could be hugely beneficial when it comes to making language learning more attractive to young people again.
When it comes to the children learning languages now, I do wonder what age those tested were when they started learning, how they were taught and tested and whether their language skills, outside of an assessment situation, might actually be a bit better than they appear… If only they weren’t so afraid of getting it wrong.
Do you speak a language other than your mother tongue? Did you learn at school, or by travelling or some other way? Or did you learn a language at school that you now struggle to even understand?
How do you think we could improve on the way we teach modern languages today? Do share your thoughts in the comments below!