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Why language learning is in freefall Watch

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    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!
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    (Original post by Nuts 'N bolts)
    --> 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 agree with these.

    And funny that you mentioned "colours" and "animals": I was just thinking myself that those are prime examples of useless words. :laugh: I will never understand why they are taught to children. Children should FIRST be taught the 2000 words most frequently used in conversation; we have a very good idea of what those words are, so there is simply no excuse for making children rote-learn useless words before they are even able to hold a conversation!
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    (Original post by Nuts 'N bolts)


    I'd really like to hear what everyone else thinks about on this topic!
    Most of the problem is the objective. British language teaching is about producing competent linguists. Therefore grammar and vocabulary are stressed and it is better that a sentence cannot be said, than that it is said wrongly. That is fine for the tiny minority who go on to do a degree in a foreign language. Those people can hold perfect conversations in the language and read difficult texts in the language. They have received the best preparation for their university study. The other 99% of the population are collateral damage in that pursuit.

    Imagine a cookery course where ingredients and utensils were studied for 5 years. In years 1 and 2 practical cooking was only with eggs. They could be fried, poached boiled or scrambled. In year 3 cheese was added. All the time students were studying how to roast beef, pork, grouse, guinea fowl and ptarmigan and the proper use of a fish kettle. By year 5 bacon had been introduced to practicals and students were studying how to plan and cook 6 course banquets and the proper use of game scissors. The hope was that some students would do the optional advanced course. The best of them would have the chance of preparing their own full English breakfast.
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    I've never been a linguist, and it's always been a huge regret of mine.

    I think maybe it's because we don't need to learn languages as the international language of business is English.


    I'm also going to throw another option out their. What's the point? I understand that their is a point, but other countries take languages a lot more seriously so start younger. If for example you study German in the UK, then you study German. f you're a German, you nailed the English bit and you study Law for example as well. We produce a German speaker. Germany produces and English speaking lawyer. Who's more employable?

    I do think we need to make languages compulsory from an earlier age and ditch teh French and possibly German. I'd like to see Cantonese, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian mandatory. (Although not all at th same time. you pick one off the list.)


    I spent a bit of time working with the German Army a few years ago, and their 18 year old squaddies can all speak passable English. 18 year old British Squaddies don't speak passable anything.
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    (Original post by MatureStudent36)


    I spent a bit of time working with the German Army a few years ago, and their 18 year old squaddies can all speak passable English. 18 year old British Squaddies don't speak passable anything.
    But when half the British army was based in Germany, it wouldn't have been long before an 18 year old squaddie mastered "Do you come here often, luv" and "Can I get you a Babycham" in German.
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    Because even if you take a language there is no guarantee you'll be able to speak it to anything more than a very basic standard, and thus it has a diminished practical value. I don't know about degree but this is certainly true for GCSE and A level from my experience.


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    (Original post by nulli tertius)
    But when half the British army was based in Germany, it wouldn't have been long before an 18 year old squaddie mastered "Do you come here often, luv" and "Can I get you a Babycham" in German.
    You'd be surprised how many never even tried, even with free language lessons. Why bother when all of the locals spoke perfectly good English.


    Other nations have that need to learn another language, we don't.


    I still remember a lecturer saying to me. If anybody gets an MBA/MSC and speaks Cantonese they'll never be out of a job. Nobody bothered learning Cantonese as all of the Chinese spoke English.
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    I wonder how many people with English as a second language also speak a third language (discounting anyone who has bilingual / multilingual parents so we simply look at school education)? I suspect it's not a whole lot.

    Also languages like musical instruments are a very personal choice. I was terrible at German simply because I can't differentiate the words however I picked up French, Japanese and Korean much more easily. I think it is better to tell a child "listen and read these languages, which one would you like to do?" rather than say "take mandarin or spanish, they're more useful". However, this would require a lot of resources and multiple language options in schools.

    It may be beneficial for every school district to have a central languages department and less common options could be based here as the combined catchment may have a more reasonable class size. I suggest this because I knew people at school who travelled to other schools to do Advanced Highers in subjects that weren't being run at their school due to too small class sizes, so it's not impossible. Schools could keep a language department for the most common languages.

    EDIT: The luckiest people are those brought up in an english-speaking country with parents who speak another language. I think a multilingual society will be generated by parents living in a different country to where they grew up and choosing to pass on languages they gained from their parents . Education cannot create fluency sadly.
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    Learning a foreign language is a fun thing to do however it really isn't essential, English is the global language and really it is the only language you need unless you are planning to go on a remote hike in whateverstan. Primary school is a key time where solid foundations are formed, although it would be nice to be able to teach kids another language there are much more important things they need to be taught and there are only so many hours in a school day. But encouraging parents to learn a second language isn't the worst idea although i suspect they will come to the conclusion that it isn't worth their time. The general pointlessness of learning a second language is only amplified with the recent boom in translation software and there are large strides being made in the field of voice recognition and production which will probably start yielding plausible voice to voice translation before long.
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    (Original post by Darth Stewie)
    Learning a foreign language is a fun thing to do however it really isn't essential, English is the global language and really it is the only language you need unless you are planning to go on a remote hike in whateverstan. Primary school is a key time where solid foundations are formed, although it would be nice to be able to teach kids another language there are much more important things they need to be taught and there are only so many hours in a school day. But encouraging parents to learn a second language isn't the worst idea although i suspect they will come to the conclusion that it isn't worth their time. The general pointlessness of learning a second language is only amplified with the recent boom in translation software and there are large strides being made in the field of voice recognition and production which will probably start yielding plausible voice to voice translation before long.
    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.
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    (Original post by nulli tertius)
    Most of the problem is the objective. British language teaching is about producing competent linguists. Therefore grammar and vocabulary are stressed and it is better that a sentence cannot be said, than that it is said wrongly. That is fine for the tiny minority who go on to do a degree in a foreign language. Those people can hold perfect conversations in the language and read difficult texts in the language. They have received the best preparation for their university study. The other 99% of the population are collateral damage in that pursuit.

    Imagine a cookery course where ingredients and utensils were studied for 5 years. In years 1 and 2 practical cooking was only with eggs. They could be fried, poached boiled or scrambled. In year 3 cheese was added. All the time students were studying how to roast beef, pork, grouse, guinea fowl and ptarmigan and the proper use of a fish kettle. By year 5 bacon had been introduced to practicals and students were studying how to plan and cook 6 course banquets and the proper use of game scissors. The hope was that some students would do the optional advanced course. The best of them would have the chance of preparing their own full English breakfast.
    I was taught very little grammar and I can't remember any overbearing focus on correctness while I was studying French. I think the biggest problem was the small amount of time given to language teaching as well as the lack of motivation and exposure to the target language. 1-2 hours a week with some homework will produce almost nothing.
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    (Original post by lol_wut)
    I was taught very little grammar and I can't remember any overbearing focus on correctness while I was studying French. I think the biggest problem was the small amount of time given to language teaching as well as the lack of motivation and exposure to the target language. 1-2 hours a week with some homework will produce almost nothing.
    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.
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    When I went on a german exchange in AS year, I could ask them what they thought of wind turbines and nuclear power, but when I needed to ask for a spoon (because I cant eat spaghetti without embarassing myself) I was completely stuck and made some retarded mime with my fork.
    And this was the product of 6 years of learning it.
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    (Original post by emma2013)
    When I went on a german exchange in AS year, I could ask them what they thought of wind turbines and nuclear power, but when I needed to ask for a spoon (because I cant eat spaghetti without embarassing myself) I was completely stuck and made some retarded mime with my fork.
    And this was the product of 6 years of learning it.
    But I am sure you could have recited a list of their irregular verbs.
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    (Original post by nulli tertius)
    But I am sure you could have recited a list of their irregular verbs.
    Sadly, still probably not at that point. The only time I properly sat down and learnt them was for the MLAT, something which most language students probably wouldn't encounter during their education and therefore have little incentive to nail grammar.
    The problem is that because of the whole controlled assesment structure which is used for GCSEs, it is possible to breeze through the course just by rehashing sentences from the textbook and committing them to memory. Students just need more exposure to the language, and from an earlier age too.
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    I'm the only person from my school in YEARS to do a language at A-Level, though I do so at our partner school. We only ever had French as an option, and I want to do French and Spanish at university. However, the lack of Spanish at GCSE meant I couldn't study it at A-Level and hence several universities were closed off to me because they want A-Levels in both languages which it wasn't possible for me to have.

    I'm doing Spanish at GCSE now after school with Year 10 though as they introduced it for them. Only 11 of 96 students in my year did French, class grades ranged from A*-G which puts people at disadvantages due to such a wide variety of grades.

    I just find people can't be bothered as its too much work, and that it's more difficult than other subjects, plus they just think everyone will speak English which reallyyyyyyy bugs me. My perspective is that if people come to the UK and we expect them to speak English, then people abroad will want/expect me to speak their language, which is perfectly reasonable as you're going to their country!


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    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 disagree and agree with some of these points. But, you are wrong to call it dull. It is all about the learner. Some people are capable or willing to learn no matter what, others think it's a way too jazz up your CV or get a 'rounded' education.

    1) Language learning is affected by your age. Children surpass adults and some teenagers when it comes to pronunciation and actually speaking the language. However, adults are way better at achieving fluency once they have overcome the basic barriers. So, being a teenager (11-15) you get the best of both worlds. Unless teachers were willing to speak French all day at primary school, it would be pointless and children need to develop fluency in English first. Studies have shown being bilingual is a major health benefit but must be done correctly, especially with children.

    2) This is true! However, GCSE serves no purpose for this. It is learn it, recite it and be done with it. A Levels on the other hand, require you to use what you know to hold a conversation, quite a difficult one as I well. I had to talk about maternity leave and I seriously had to argue with the 'arrogant' examiner and make him listen. The fact is, kids don't want to hold a conversation at GCSE, you have to have an interest and confidence, it's all about communication. At GCSE, not many are interested or confident in having a go, so they essentially stop themselves.

    3) This is important, but British really aren't good at languages. We are very closed, contained people, which isn't bad! But, language learning requires very social people in order to get the best of out of learning. I think adults nowadays would not bother, even if they got paid to. Perhaps in the future though, it might be more effective.

    4) French, German and Spanish are the most practical and worthwhile for UK students. While people promote Chinese Mandarin like hell, the Chinese have plowed their students with enough English to be fairly proficient. French, German and Spanish are important bridging languages, they are easier than the more 'exotic' languages and teachers are available. Once you've developed the confidence to speak French/Spanish/German etc, you can easily overtake a student who studies solely Chinese/Arabic.

    5) Again, this a GCSE - A Level issue. I knew little about French culture at GCSE, apart from the Eiffel Tower, Saint Mont Michel and Snails. At A Level, I knew all about Paris Beach, Strasbourg, The Admins, Renaissance, Bastille, Bayeux and even legal stuff like PACs and Women's Equality Acts. Plus I knew all the modern singers and actors after being immersed into the TV/Radio. So I think you are right with this suggestion!
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    (Original post by Paralove)
    Only 11 of 96 students in my year did French
    This year there were all of 5 people of out 183 in my year taking German
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    (Original post by emma2013)
    This year there were all of 5 people of out 183 in my year taking German
    There were 9 in the year above, but since that year its actually risen each year, there's two decent sized classes for GCSE now!


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    (Original post by serebro)
    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 disagree and agree with some of these points. But, you are wrong to call it dull. It is all about the learner. Some people are capable or willing to learn no matter what, others think it's a way too jazz up your CV or get a 'rounded' education.

    1) Language learning is affected by your age. Children surpass adults and some teenagers when it comes to pronunciation and actually speaking the language. However, adults are way better at achieving fluency once they have overcome the basic barriers. So, being a teenager (11-15) you get the best of both worlds. Unless teachers were willing to speak French all day at primary school, it would be pointless and children need to develop fluency in English first. Studies have shown being bilingual is a major health benefit but must be done correctly, especially with children.

    2) This is true! However, GCSE serves no purpose for this. It is learn it, recite it and be done with it. A Levels on the other hand, require you to use what you know to hold a conversation, quite a difficult one as I well. I had to talk about maternity leave and I seriously had to argue with the 'arrogant' examiner and make him listen. The fact is, kids don't want to hold a conversation at GCSE, you have to have an interest and confidence, it's all about communication. At GCSE, not many are interested or confident in having a go, so they essentially stop themselves.

    3) This is important, but British really aren't good at languages. We are very closed, contained people, which isn't bad! But, language learning requires very social people in order to get the best of out of learning. I think adults nowadays would not bother, even if they got paid to. Perhaps in the future though, it might be more effective.

    4) French, German and Spanish are the most practical and worthwhile for UK students. While people promote Chinese Mandarin like hell, the Chinese have plowed their students with enough English to be fairly proficient. French, German and Spanish are important bridging languages, they are easier than the more 'exotic' languages and teachers are available. Once you've developed the confidence to speak French/Spanish/German etc, you can easily overtake a student who studies solely Chinese/Arabic.

    5) Again, this a GCSE - A Level issue. I knew little about French culture at GCSE, apart from the Eiffel Tower, Saint Mont Michel and Snails. At A Level, I knew all about Paris Beach, Strasbourg, The Admins, Renaissance, Bastille, Bayeux and even legal stuff like PACs and Women's Equality Acts. Plus I knew all the modern singers and actors after being immersed into the TV/Radio. So I think you are right with this suggestion!
    I remember reading a book by an economist a few years ago. I forget the name but it covered such useful things as 'why did Kamikaze pilots wear crash helmets.'

    At the start of it the author mentioned that he spent many years studying Spanish, but went to Mexico only to realise he didn't know how to speak it. He's spent that long getting the grammar.

    He then joined the Peace Corps and went on a 3 month crash course in Burmese. Couldn't read it write it, but found i amazing that he could communicate with people more freely than he did with the Spanish.

    Maybe that's the problem. If some courses just focused on learning how to speak it there'd be a bigger uptake.
 
 
 
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