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Why language learning is in freefall Watch

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    (Original post by yepyepyep)
    No it's not. You have to have a thorough understanding of how things work and actually be able to apply that to a question. Sure at GCSE memorising worked but then GCSE papers don't have synoptic questions. Also, when you reach A2 you don't have your AS textbooks anymore, you are expected to remember what you covered at AS level. There is more competition for science degrees you're right, but this is mostly for medicine, natural sciences, forensics etc. Pure sciences are still fairly easy to get onto a course for at a good uni. Modern language degrees are too in great demand, and I think you've done well to choose to study languages. I'm by no means one of the people who thinks language are pointless, I just disagreed with your comments about science.
    I wouldn't really know if the language department at my school was particularly bad in comparison to other departments to be honest. The school I attended when I chose my GCSE's was pretty much failing in all areas, having said that languages were taught pretty horrifically. So few people chose to study languages that most of the courses were dropped, this is probably expected in a special measures state school though.
    Also, I don't know if this is relevant, but I can honestly say I've never met a language teacher who wasn't clearly insane.
    Let's agree to disagree? Actually, my year 7 teacher literally had a mental issue (I'm not taking the mick of her for that), one is an ex punk who talks in a monotone, another married a slightly creepy Frenchman and another had a stalker in France during his uni year there.
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    (Original post by majaohalo)
    I definitely think there needs to be changes. Teenagers aren't taught to have any passion for the languages, they're simply taught to pass an exam - and at the end of it, what do you have?! You can't even say a few sentences to a native speaker with any sort of confidence.

    In my GCSE Spanish classes, we learn the same useless grammar again and again. We learn the words for 'health' and 'poverty' and whatnot, but we can't communicate or hold conversations.

    We learn nothing about culture, and no passion is really ignited in students. People stop caring, because they see the lessons as irrelevant and tedious.

    I wish that I was enjoying my Spanish lessons and becoming good at speaking and communicating, but in 4 years of having 3 hours per week, I know pretty much nothing. I'm going into Year 11, and dreading Spanish class.

    No wonder people aren't taking languages to A-level - I'm certainly not going to.
    Completely agree, languages should be more than just a class. Irish at A-Level in our school is oft said to "not actually feel like a subject" because it's so enjoyable and this should be the same across the board.
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    (Original post by Alludeen1)
    Let's agree to disagree? Actually, my year 7 teacher literally had a mental issue (I'm not taking the mick of her for that), one is an ex punk who talks in a monotone, another married a slightly creepy Frenchman and another had a stalker in France during his uni year there.
    Fair enough, the ease with which someone learns a subject obviously differs from person to person. Without wanting to sound patronising though, have you started your A-levels yet? I'm not saying it discredits your argument if you haven't, but a very different learning style is needed for science A-levels rather than science GCSE's. I literally don't know anyone who can get a good grade just by memorising a textbook.
    I went through quite a few language teachers because they kept having mental breakdowns (nothing to do with me). One of them was strangely passive aggressive and would try to control a class by turning down the air con, one of them went to germany for the summer and almost married a man there until it transpired he'd cheated on her, another was morbidly obese and challenged me to a pressup competition in class. She also referred to students as foods, saying 'you cheeky papadum' and would frequently put her hands down her skirt and scratch down there in a manner that could in no way be referred to as surreptitious.
    And there was one guy, I was unfortunate enough to see him in a pantomime in which he was wearing very tight leather leggings which made his package extremely visible. I do love language teachers.
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    just wondering, would it put us linguists at an advantage?
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    I have an aptitude for learning languages but I jumped that ship as soon as I could. The lessons were hideously boring and rarely constructive. I learned much more just by myself than I ever did in class. We did one French GCSE listening paper so many times in revision that I once filled out the answers before they played the tape.

    To be fair though, if you're English, why bother learning another language anyway? Most other countries do their best to pick ours up as soon as possible, mostly thanks to the Yanks. I'd always expect language A levels to be undersubscribed here, but I agree that they aren't the best taught of subjects too.
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    (Original post by Nuts 'N bolts)
    Every year at this time the media and a few experts appear baffled and confused as to why every year less and less students are taking languages. They largely blame either arrogance on the part of British people (to assume everyone speaks English) or that it was making languages no longer compulsory back in 04. However it seems that none of these people are capable of waking up and smelling the coffee; learning a language in the UK is rubbish and the fact that numbers have free falled since it was no longer compusory says it all, teenager don't want to do it.


    Now when I was in school a few years back I had to take a GCSE in a modern foreign language (in my case French which I got a B in) and at the end of it far from being able to speak French I felt like I had wasted 2 years and that I never wanted to learn french ever again. The course itself is an absolute stinker full of all sorts of fluff that if totally useless in a conversation and by the end all a student can do is parrot learned phrases. Now if you do take a GCSE then you would have been studying that language for 4-5 years and if you can't even hold a basic conversation after that amount of time that honestly what was the point in doing it at all?


    The way we are taught is completely wrong, kids are taught too late (languages ideally need to start in primary school) and when they get to secondary school they are taught in a dull, boring way which just switches kids off. There's hardly anything interesting taught about the culture the language comes from and all the lessons can be boiled down into memory tests: this week remember colours, next remember animals etc. Sometimes the lessons are forced into 2 hour blocks due to timetabling which is absolutely hopeless and many kids (like myself) are/were just not interested enough to do anything outside of the classroom which is key to remembering and understanding.

    Ultimately young people have no interest in taking languages and why would they? It's dull, difficult, unfufilling and not rewarding in the slightest.


    Now admittedly if English is your first language it's a double edged sword, on the one hand it's great: you already speak a global language. On the other hand you are less likely to learn another. Why? because there is less impetus to, learning a second language is not a necessity the way it is in other countries but also we're not saturated in foreign language media the same way the rest of the world is exposed to hollywood films and english language music etc.


    I've even spoken to a few people who when travelling abroad tried to shakily ask locals questions in their native tongue only to get replies back in near perfect english which is disheartening. One of the things people will find abroad is that people want to speak to you in english to help improve their own.
    Finally people abroad in non english speaking countries are all learning one language and because of that there's always going to be people to practice inside and outside school be it friends or family. In the UK because we are learning many different ones because we have the choice it is much harder to find people who you can practice with especially as many adults are monolingual, there's no one to practice with at home.

    With the system so broken it will take a long time to fix things and here a few things that I think need to change

    --> Teach languages at an earlier age
    --> Make language teaching more fun with greater focus on holding a conversation
    --> Encourage adults to learn a second language so their children have someone to practice with at home
    --> Offer a greater range of languages to study
    --> Teach more about the culture that these languages come from


    I'd really like to hear what everyone else thinks about on this topic!
    Good points.
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    (Original post by nulli tertius)
    Was it the one in the church hall on Stroget? I bought the Everyman edition of Gibbon's Decline and Fall last year.
    yeah it was I was really amazed by it, most of the books were roughly £1 and yet they were relatively rare. I have never seen such a wide array of rare history books for such low prices. I bought a book on the History of Prussia and another book on Nationalism in Germany-both in English. I have 'Decline and Fall' but I haven't really had a chance to read it yet, it taunts me from the shelf with its 1050 pages haha
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    (Original post by MatureStudent36)
    Two points though. Other nations seem to manage teaching kids a second language from an early age. I would agree with parents learning a second language, but I hate to come up with excuses, but it's a lot easier to learn languages younger. There minds are like sponges. That's why my Dutch friend uses his 6 year old daughter as a translator. She speaks fluent English, Dutch and Polish. Dutch because they live in Holland, Polishbecuse his mother is Polish and English because it's taught at school. She translates Polish for him so e can communicate with his in laws, and she translates English to the in laws whenever an English speaker comes to visit.


    here's a skill learning languages, but that gap I think is smaller the younger the kids are.

    I know that when I have kids they'll be learning a language from an early stage. I'll even try and learn it as well.

    The 6 year old girl is like me and most of my siblings. We speak Dutch because we grew up in Holland, English because we now live in the UK and Somali because we are from Somalia. I'm currently trying to learn at least one more language, not sure which though, but it's very difficult now that I'm older. I also think that one way that makes learning another language a whole lot easier is by living in a country where people speak that particular language. IMO if you are surrounded by people who speak the language you want to learn, the tv is always showing people that speak that language, the road signs are written in that language you're practically forced to learn it.
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    (Original post by rac1)
    I think colours are useful in a real life situation and I suppose animals are taught because it's a bit more interesting than the contents of your pencil case etc.
    That's beside the point, because the contents of your pencil case are also mostly useless words.

    Here's something you can do to figure out what I mean. Find your last 100 posts on TSR, and count how often you have used the words "green" or "mouse" or "biro" compared to the words "go" or "think" or "some" or "people". Conversely, for a foreigner reading your posts or talking to you in real life, knowledge of the latter four words will be much more important than knowledge of the first three.

    You don't need to know the words "green", "blue" or "orange" in real life. You only need to be able to form sentences with relatively few but common words, like: "I like this dress. Do you think it looks good? I don't know if I should buy it. I really like it but I think it is too expensive." The ability to form simple sentences with commonly used words will get you a lot farther in a foreign country than a specialist vocabulary, which you can learn later, when you can already say "This looks great. What colour is it?". The most useful words have to come first.

    On this page there is a link to a list of the most used English words, if you want to have a closer look. Similar lists exist for French, German and many other languages. We just ignore them and instead teach lists of colours and animals and indeed the contents of your pencil case and other specialist vocabulary.

    We can still teach specialist vocabulary, AFTER all pupils have learned the 2000 most useful words and are able to use them without having to think too much. THEN by all means teach them about animals, or wind turbines or whatever interests them.
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    I completely agree that languages should be taught in a different and more exciting way, however I think it's ignorant of most English people to assume "why would I learn another language? Everyone speaks English". My sister studies German at Nottingham Uni and is currently living in Germany hoping to strengthen her language skills. She says it has single-handedly been the best year of her entire life. She has not only become fluent in German but it has opened up her eyes to a completely new culture and way of life, plus when Brits go abroad many foreigners become tired of them assuming that everybody will speak English and make no effort to speak the native tongue! So I think to deem learning languages as " not fulfilling and unrewarding" is inaccurate...

    Maybe because I've seen the life-changing effect that learning a language has had on my sister has made me a little biased haha... but I honestly think learning a new language is an amazing skill and will always prove helpful in a wide range of careers. If anyone was considering learning a language at Uni- I would say do it!
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    (Original post by twinedrapier)
    I went to Russia recently and only met one person that spoke fluent English.
    Like one of my professors once told me, when I couldn't call the name of his best humorist on the photo from the newspaper on his table: "You chap, probably, just don't leave the pub in your free time."
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    (Original post by llys)
    That's beside the point, because the contents of your pencil case are also mostly useless words.

    Here's something you can do to figure out what I mean. Find your last 100 posts on TSR, and count how often you have used the words "green" or "mouse" or "biro" compared to the words "go" or "think" or "some" or "people". Conversely, for a foreigner reading your posts or talking to you in real life, knowledge of the latter four words will be much more important than knowledge of the first three.

    You don't need to know the words "green", "blue" or "orange" in real life. You only need to be able to form sentences with relatively few but common words, like: "I like this dress. Do you think it looks good? I don't know if I should buy it. I really like it but I think it is too expensive." The ability to form simple sentences with commonly used words will get you a lot farther in a foreign country than a specialist vocabulary, which you can learn later, when you can already say "This looks great. What colour is it?". The most useful words have to come first.

    On this page there is a link to a list of the most used English words, if you want to have a closer look. Similar lists exist for French, German and many other languages. We just ignore them and instead teach lists of colours and animals and indeed the contents of your pencil case and other specialist vocabulary.

    We can still teach specialist vocabulary, AFTER all pupils have learned the 2000 most useful words and are able to use them without having to think too much. THEN by all means teach them about animals, or wind turbines or whatever interests them.
    I think you're right. I definitely agree that teaching isn't up to scratch in languages and perhaps in a quite a lot of schools teaching colours is more than just a quick introduction to the language. A lot of the most commonly used words are connectives, prepositions etc. so they need some kind of theme in which to teach them, otherwise it's really boring rote learning.
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    (Original post by Ham22)
    My experience of GCSE German-

    Rote learning (Doesn't work for me, although it works for some)
    Rote learning vocab lists
    Obsession with the intricacies of grammar and sentence structure

    All at the expense of-
    Actually speaking the language and attempting to have conversation.
    Do you think that may be because we've moved away from teaching English Grammar in our own schools.? Peopl eare having difficulty understanding it.
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    (Original post by rac1)
    I think you're right. I definitely agree that teaching isn't up to scratch in languages and perhaps in a quite a lot of schools teaching colours is more than just a quick introduction to the language. A lot of the most commonly used words are connectives, prepositions etc. so they need some kind of theme in which to teach them, otherwise it's really boring rote learning.
    Yes, you are right of course in that we already learn common words, precisely because they are so frequent, they can't really be avoided. IMO one problem is however that we don't focus on those words enough (I think connective words and prepositions are perhaps about 10% or less of those words btw) and that we add specialist word lists too soon, and those things are kind of symptomatic of a bigger problem with how we teach languages. Prepare yourself because this is something I'm quite obsessed with.

    Spoiler:
    Show
    Off the top of my head, if I had to teach a language, I would first make pupils learn the most common 2000 or 3000 words. At 50 words per week (really not that much with a good learning programme) it would take 40 school weeks or one year; older pupils could do it faster. At the same time, I would make sure pupils use those words every day: specifically that they speak and write every day (using short listening and reading prompts). So of course I would also teach practical grammar (probably I would teach it in phrases from which they can extrapolate and form new phrases, until they can say every possible thing with the words they know).

    Once they know those words, I would keep them speaking and writing using mainly those 2000-3000 words until they can use them without thinking*. Then they really know the words. This is the most important thing; if you've just rote-learned the words once, that does not mean you know them. You have to use those words every day, and at the same time break down speaking inhibitions. That is best done with a small but useful vocabulary (2000 IS small), and may well take two years, and that could be the GCSE. Some pupils may not take it further than that, and that's fine, because if they complete this stage and can really use those 2000-3000 words they are perfectly able to communicate in most real-life situations. The difference to the current situation is that currently you don't really learn the important words in depth, you just either dabble a bit (KS3, with useless, but easy-to-colour-in words like animals) or keep adding specialist words (KS4 and KS5), which is admirable in one way, but disastrous in another because 1) it doesn't work - most pupils give up, or forget important vocabulary because they hardly practise using it, and 2) that time that you spend on learning specialist vocabulary and grammar, you don't spend practising and practising and practising the words you really need to know, which would be much more effective.

    *At this stage you can use authentic prompts which contain some specialist, unknown words, but the focus should not be on making pupils learn those words, but rather they can just understand them in passing because they know the important words so well that they can guess the specialist words from context. The focus should still be on using the important words.

    After that phase, I would let every pupil choose topics they are interested in and pick up specialist vocabulary by reading and listening widely (and of course speaking and writing) on those topics. At this point advanced pupils should go up to 6000-9000 words. Every pupil could write their own vocabulary list, because that seems to me to be most useful to them. Of course the teacher needs to be fluent to be able to support it.

    And you know, an interesting stat is that most language learners in the UK currently don't even know that many words. Graduates with a degree in French in the UK on average know only just above 3000 words. (!) Clearly they have forgotten most of the useless words they were made to learn during their studies. And I bet that those words they remember are the words they have used during their year abroad by speaking with others, in other words the most commonly used 3000 words. Which is so weird, because I think to become a competent communicator with a 3000 word vocabulary is something that many pupils would be capable of achieving at school, if they were taught with that in mind. 3000 words is really not that much!
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    I absolutely hated languages at school, hardly learned a thing. I just did a year of learning a new language at university and absolutely loved it, learnt so much more than at school and actually feel confident in using it. I know everyone else in the class felt the same too. Whether this is down to better teaching or simply being more mature, I don't know (probably a mixture of both). But it does seem a great shame that all those years studying languages at school were so pointless, and now I actually enjoy it and am progressing well with learning a language, I find it's really difficult to actually find any courses to continue studying.


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    I wish I'd have been taught a second language at an earlier age. I'm trying to learn German now and it's so hard, haha.
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    (Original post by MatureStudent36)
    Do you think that may be because we've moved away from teaching English Grammar in our own schools.? Peopl eare having difficulty understanding it.
    There may be something in that but mostly it is not that people find the grammar difficult but that it soaks up too much of the available teaching time.
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    It's because properly teaching the language, i.e conversational skills, would either require a lot of funding or a lot of very competent teachers, or both. You need to actually talk to people, ground up, to become fluent conversationally. You can't have teachers tutoring one on one, or exchanges that last long enough to make a big difference, or hire loads of native speakers to engage in conversation with every student.

    I think also that it's easier to just rote learn things than try to hold a conversation, plus a lot of people feel incredibly intimidated talking to someone very accomplished in the language. That's part of the reason why total immersion is so effective: because you have no choice. You have to speak in your target language. In a classroom, everyone babbles in English, teachers included. If speaking in the target language were properly enforced it might help, but people also need to have some level of interest to put in that amount of effort.

    Even if we encourage learning it younger, it won't help unless we make changes to how it is taught. I went through 8 years of my schooling in Spain and the general level of English was shocking, and I say this because by the time I got there at 9-10 they had already been learning it a number of years (the very beginning of Primary School if I'm not mistaken), and by the time I left after my Baccalaureate people still couldn't hold a conversation past maybe a few sentences. A couple of people asked me to talk to them in English. Nobody followed through and soon either switched back to Spanish or asked me to talk to them in Spanish anyway. In Spain you have to learn English all the way to the end of the Baccalaureate, and generally another language too, in my case Catalan.

    Another problem is that every single English teacher I have come across is Spanish, with a noticeable accent. That imposes a certain limitation on how fluent and how well students can pronounce English as the whole time their own accent is being parroted back to them, and some teachers even made some basic mistakes where they directly translated from Spanish. I've never come across an English teacher that spoke it better than me, let alone perfectly.
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    (Original post by nulli tertius)
    Were you made to conjugate donner? Were you made to conjugate etre?

    If someone dumped you in a monolingual French speaking community, how long would it be before the people you were staying with started doing that? You would be able to hold a conversation before anyone would start correcting your tenses and word order.

    Part of the reason for the lack of motivation is because pupils have nothing they can do with what they have learnt. I suspect most GCSE students couldn't even follow an Asterix cartoon in French.
    I actually think that not enough focus is spent on grammar at school and too much is spent on learning lists of vocab and random phrases. Really, what is the use of learning tonnes of words without being able to use them in a sentence? People are bound to feel confused and bored by language learning if they don't feel they could ever conduct a natural and free flowing conversation with it. People are embarrassed by the thought of speaking in a very basic and ungrammatical way, because we simply have far more awareness than a young child. We hate the thought of sounding stupid in a way that a toddler of course wouldn't. The trick is to give people the grammar skills to remove that fear of sounding silly, and give people the confidence to use the language in a natural way. When I did a language module at university, learning the grammar was the most important aspect of it. I found it really helpful for becoming confident in the language, as you could have a conversation without having to stick to particular phrases you'd had drilled into you. You could then begin to hold natural conversations with people about last weekend or what you're going to do next summer, without having to constantly grapple with how to say 'I did that' or 'i want to do this'. I think that once people feel confident in using the grammar of a language, it's much much easier to pick up the rest of it and in general, it becomes much less scary to use because you know you've got the basic building blocks there to be understood.


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    (Original post by redpanda41)
    I actually think that not enough focus is spent on grammar at school and too much is spent on learning lists of vocab and random phrases. Really, what is the use of learning tonnes of words without being able to use them in a sentence? People are bound to feel confused and bored by language learning if they don't feel they could ever conduct a natural and free flowing conversation with it. People are embarrassed by the thought of speaking in a very basic and ungrammatical way, because we simply have far more awareness than a young child. We hate the thought of sounding stupid in a way that a toddler of course wouldn't. The trick is to give people the grammar skills to remove that fear of sounding silly, and give people the confidence to use the language in a natural way. When I did a language module at university, learning the grammar was the most important aspect of it. I found it really helpful for becoming confident in the language, as you could have a conversation without having to stick to particular phrases you'd had drilled into you. You could then begin to hold natural conversations with people about last weekend or what you're going to do next summer, without having to constantly grapple with how to say 'I did that' or 'i want to do this'. I think that once people feel confident in using the grammar of a language, it's much much easier to pick up the rest of it and in general, it becomes much less scary to use because you know you've got the basic building blocks there to be understood.


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    I agree with you about learning random phrases but that is function of the current GCSE system.Rehearsed phrases also appear in geography and history. However the problem with languages is much older. I did O level French and we didn't learn phrases by rote but we did learn lists of irregular verbs and we did struggle to hold a conversation.

    However on your main point I disagree. If you speak to someone who can barely speak English, he doesn't need grammar to be intelligible. He does not need the correct pronouns, word order or tense. To be intelligible you need to be able to identify the subject and object of the sentence, to have a wide enough range of infinitives and nouns to describe common objects and actions and to know a present, past and future tense of regular verbs.

    The famous and apocryphal greeting of the German spy:
    Went the day well?
    is perfectly intelligible.
 
 
 
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