I’m not sure the BBC research into numbers taking GCSEs in modern languages was timed to coincide with many schools requiring pupils to decide what subjects they would be taking for GCSE. However, the news last week that numbers have continued to fall such that there are districts in England where no pupils sat a GCSE in French or German at all, certainly provided an interesting backdrop to our Year 9 discussions over option choices.
Of course, in common with many other schools independent of Government funding and thus of curriculum prescription, we can make up our minds (subject to the legislation which does apply to independent schools) what our pupils will or will not study. Highgate pupils have had, and still have, to take at least one modern language to GCSE, unlike state schools which were in 2004 released from the requirement to teach a modern language after Year 9. (In fact, this was at the behest of many languages teachers who bewailed the experience of linguistically less able or less motivated pupils treading water, or worse, in Years 10 and 11 when they could have been doing something else).
What happened in 2004 was that not only did those who found the academic challenges of a language GCSE too great opt for other subjects, but also those who hitherto had secured the top grades couldn’t be persuaded to keep a language going. The BBC research suggests that both pupils and schools have worried that a language GCSE is harder to get a good grade in and, with ‘floor targets’ for schools (acceptable thresholds of grade C or better across a school), and grade profiles for pupils aiming at good jobs and degrees, a language GCSE wasn’t a safe bet. I’d add to that the fact that anyone whose learning diet was made up of only what a GCSE language exam actually requires would be faced with less interesting intellectual nutrition than in many other subjects, and the ultimate disappointment of not actually being able to do much with the language afterwards, outside the classroom.
Numerous commentators have signalled the dangers of this and future generations’ remaining obdurately monolingual: take Sir David Cannadine, President of the British Academy no less, who pointed to the impact on the British economy of our linguistic underperformance through lost investment and trade of up to £48bn or 3.5% of GDP per annum. He catalogues the advantages to children’s learning: ‘Research shows that language learning at school boosts overall literacy, which is a major predictor of children’s attainment in science and maths. We know too that the ability to switch between languages develops cognitive flexibility and improves multitasking and creativity.’
Not everyone agrees. It’s not unusual to hear parents, colleagues or pupils themselves querying the cost benefit of learning a language – after all, it is a laborious business at times – when the modern equivalent of the Babel fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy seems close at hand. We won’t need to insert a small, yellow, leech-like fish into our ears to understand Vogon speech when we have Google Translate to hand! Who hasn’t taken a photo of a list of ingredients in an unfamiliar language and run them through a translator app to ensure no unpleasant surprises? Why commit the young to hours of rote learning, and seemingly endless opportunities to make mistakes, when a computer programme can do it for us?
It’s not an argument which preoccupies our multilingual, continental neighbours. Northern Europeans, for example, see bilingualism, or English speaking, as an attribute every bit as important as fluency in their own language, and as high calibre as numeracy or computer literacy. Trade, travel, transatlantic understanding – these are all felt, known even, to rest on human contact being unimpaired and unhindered by linguistic barriers. While we will happily tolerate machinery and computers stepping in where our voices cannot operate (the late Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesiser is a famous example), the growth of real, productive and trusting relationships, needs a shared language. The business and discipline of a language well learnt and well taught brings much more than mastery of language itself.
So if it’s so important and potentially valuable, even for those who speak a world language, why don’t the Brits do it better and more willingly?
My hunch has always been that we think learning a language, because it appears on the timetable, is like learning any other academic subjects. Of course, taught properly, a language has an academic rigour and identity like any other subject. The work of John Claughton (former Highgate Governor and recently retired Chief Master of one of the country’s leading independent schools, King Edward School Birmingham) to advocate the academic study of classical and modern languages, and one’s own, would do a lot to rescue the intellectual respectability of language learning. But, if we compare learning a language with learning an instrument, we can get further still. No one expects a weekly music lesson to make a would-be flautist fluent: quite a bit of practice; some music theory; playing in an ensemble; attending orchestra rehearsals and playing in concerts. All of this, and more, will be needed, and still there will be flautists and flautists, from those who can grace a school band nicely to those who notice if they haven’t practised for a day. So it is with linguists: our lessons are merely a starting point if functional fluency is our aim. We need to listen to the spoken word; to read so as to mimic our native speakers’ experience; to spend time abroad (we suggest a target of two weeks for GCSE, and four for the sixth form, and in an environment where English is never heard or used, except in extremis!); and to have native-speaker friends we speak to as a matter of course.
Back to Year 9. A lot of parents quite naturally look for advice as their children line up to make their first big choice about the curriculum, and not only because they’re lining up themselves at parents’ evenings and are looking for a little light in-queue entertainment. I’ve found myself saying that most of us, many of us at least, make very little use of what we actually learnt at school in our professional lives. There are exceptions, of course, and the building blocks for some study need laying down somewhere. Yet often what’s really important later on professionally, if it’s content-based, needs greater cognitive maturity than that which falls to fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds. What does matter a lot, however, are the attitudes and attributes which young people acquire, how their professional personalities are wired. And one important feature of this is the experience of using discretionary effort, working harder from time to time than might be needed or be reasonably demanded, not through fear or pressure, but through motivation. If we do a task better than is expected, and without being asked to, we make an impression and an impact, and we distinguish ourselves from those who are doing what it says on the tin. Younger people do this best when they are allowed to make some choices, so I say to parents, when they are allowed a choice, let them choose what they really like! We may feel history is the silver bullet for cogent thinking and expression, or computer science the cure for society’s digital illiteracy, but a pupil’s enthusiasms needs air to breathe if they are to practise ‘discretionary effort’.
Why not let them choose everything, then? Well, everything in moderation, one might say, but also be wary of the Government’s experience of lifting the requirement to learn a language in 2004: the market spoke, and generations of young people are condemned to monolingualism in a world which urgently needs them to be vigorously, culturally and instinctively multilingual. This, like the building blocks in literacy, numeracy and science, needs laying early on. But the wonderful cognitive advantages which fall to children if they learn a language (or an instrument) will only be fully grasped if we shift our language learning from classroom-bound reluctance to warm adventure and encounter!