We Need to Talk about Language Education

A truism: five-year-olds will never tell you what exactly happened in school that day. My daughter’s replies range from, “I forgot,” to, “X was mean to y, and then z got mad and I fell down and grazed my knee, but it didn’t hurt.” As for whether she learned anything, I can never be sure. But for the last few weeks, her replies to, “Did you do German?” have been a consistent, “No.”

I decided to ask a friend in the PTA last Thursday, and only because I did this, I found out that there are indeed no German lessons at the moment. Moreover, it is very unlikely that there will be any in the future because there are no specialist German teachers in our town (a town with three universities and a population of more than half a million), and the education authority is “very keen” on introducing Spanish or French. I’ll spare you the details of my initial reaction, but it wasn’t pretty or particularly dignified. The fact is that German lessons were a decider when we chose this school. My kids speak German, and I will continue to teach them, but it would be nice to send them to a school that valued and encouraged the language on a daily basis so it’s not just something weird their mother does. The school is a “Centre of Excellence” for German, although a quick Internet search hasn’t really told me anything about whether this is an official title associated with funding or support from the German government or foreign relations bodies. It is one of the very few primary schools in town that offers German as a foreign language. The neighbouring school has quietly scrapped German and the “Centre of Excellence” title at some point in the last four years. This has led to the associated high school scrapping their German lessons, so our school has nowhere to send their German learners to continue their studies. Nothing has been officially decided yet, but it looks like there is no point in continuing to offer German lessons.

My problem with it is this: When was I supposed to find out? Parents have neither been informed nor consulted about this issue. Even if nothing has been decided yet, there is still the fact that at the moment, and quite possibly since the middle of the school year, there are no language lessons taking place at all. Almost every week I get a letter reminding me of the colour of the school uniform, but this is not something worth mentioning.

So, will I complain? I honestly don’t know. I don’t mind my children learning Spanish or French; the more languages the better. I’d love for them to have German lessons, too, but there seems to be no point in forcing an issue that is so low on the list of priorities in this or any primary school in England. Occasionally, an intellectual will complain about the lack of foreign language teaching in a national newspaper, sparking a very short debate that ends in the consensus that languages are important. Weeks later, an article will mention the fact that fewer students are taking languages as exam subjects. Primary schools have to introduce a foreign language, but the majority of secondary schools only teach one, so continuity is an issue (I doubt many people choose a secondary school for their children based on which foreign language is on offer). The logical solution to all this, of course, would be to make learning foreign languages mandatory up to school leaving age, offer a wide variety of them, and employ more language teachers, but you know what the problem is, don’t you? There is no money. And the world speaks English anyway. My grammar school offered six different foreign languages, of which you had to pick two, and you could choose to study up to four. But that wasn’t in England.

Over 40% of children in our school speak a first language that is not English. Wouldn’t it make sense to encourage their classmates to learn about the languages their friends speak at home? As far as I’m aware, primary school language courses focus on listening, repetition, and playful learning. Surely this could happen in more than one foreign language? Why don’t they sing a Polish or Urdu song in assembly? My two-year-old just added a Russian word to his vocabulary; who’s to say a six-year-old wouldn’t manage it, too? But there are simply no resources for frivolous activities like language courses. Even when a parent offered to teach an after school German club, she was turned down. This is the reality of primary schools in times of economic troubles. Actually, it’s more than that.

We need to be more enthusiastic about languages. They are the basis of other people’s cultures, and cultural exchange in the arts is something Britain is doing so well — only in the big German cities would you come across such a wide variety of cultural offerings. But why stop at song, dance and food? Other countries have embraced English out of necessity, but they also value the intellectual merit of language learning. In Britain, humanities are the thankless, unprofitable branch of higher learning. I couldn’t take a Polish course even if I had the money because nobody will teach me. Communication in the 21st century is something that happens almost exclusively in English, and British kids are born with this advantage. But recently, even this privilege is being eroded: Statistics show that 15% of children leave primary school with insufficient English skills. Before we can complain about the lack of foreign languages being taught in British schools, this problem needs to be addressed and resolved. Many people don’t expect much from an education minister who seems to view his job as a mere stepping stone to a higher office. I’m not a teacher, nor an expert, so there’s very little I can do or complain about. But I’m one of those hoping that one day, Britain will embrace its linguistic potential and encourage every child to not only get introduced to languages at a primary level, but continue their studies, have a variety of choices, and get the support they need to master a foreign language.

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Karo

Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

3 thoughts on “We Need to Talk about Language Education”

  1. Whenever it comes to languages in school, I tend to come back to same point: before foreign languages, the focus needs to be on basic literacy, which as you pointed out, is not necessarily being achieved.

    I think I’d rather see kids learning *about* other languages, than attempting to outright teach them a language. Then again, primary school and secondary school are not the same. I like that at a primary level, kids are exposed to lots of different things (music, art, languages, history, science, etc) but dislike how things can then be pushed upon them at the secondary level.

    We were required to take a language (German or French) through secondary school and to do at least one at Standard Grade (so, we were studying up until about age 16 – similar to GCSEs). It isn’t something I have kept up since then (I chucked my notes with glee a couple of years later). I think people are pulled towards different things and I’d love to see that (in a general sense) more respected within education.

    As a final point, whilst we had the choice of German or French, there was no Gaelic or Scots (we weren’t allowed to speak Scots!).

  2. Oh, yes. I’ve been raised bilingual and going to school in the Netherlands mean you have two “exotic” languages outside Dutch. I chose a third, because I love my languages. I think – the country being so small, the language being so tiny, we kind of feel like having to reach out instead of expecting that people will reach towards us.

    And yet, people wonder if maybe it only should be English that is taught. Or Mandarin because “the Chinese are coming”. Why children should even bother with other languages because heck how do you build a country with that.

    It’s annoying and I so desperately wish we wouldn’t place one subject above the other.

  3. It sucks. Lexie has Spanish class once a week in pre-K, but I have no idea what the situation is next year. We were thinking about trying to get her into our district’s bilingual program that’s even split between English- and Spanish-speaking kids; they get all their lessons in one language one day, then the other lesson the next day. Unfortunately, it’s only offered at one of the elementary schools in the district, and it’s the one that’s the farthest from our house and in a not-great area (there was an attempted child abduction a few blocks away last week, and the junior high next door has a lot of problems). I think they get some Spanish at the school she’s assigned to, but I’m not sure. I didn’t start until 8th grade and was able to become pretty fluent, but I’d love for her to keep going with what she’s learned (mine’s become pretty rusty).

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