Stepping beyond the Mother Tongue

Back in 2017, GCSE exams were completely reformed- changing from an alphabetical grading system to the current 9-1 grades and exams designed to be tougher along with restricting the amount of pupils who got top grades. One of the most significant changes were towards modern foreign languages, a subject which is notoriously hard, and after taking a foreign language no longer became required, over 1/3 of pupils drop the subject at GCSE. It is still mandatory for primary school children to be taught another language, whether it’s ancient or modern but it has been found that they are often being taught at an incredibly low level. When most students leave primary school they often only know basic numbers and colours, this means when they join secondary school, the standard expected of them is frequently daunting and off-putting. Is it because the curriculum is too difficult? Quite possibly, compared to other EBacc subjects, pupils typically drop a full grade lower- meaning if somebody scored a 6 in history, they may have only gotten a 5 in French.

However, is it just the high standards putting Brits off from learning a foreign language? As a nation, we are prominent examples of poor language learners, a report by the European commission -in 2012- shows that people in the UK are least likely to speak a foreign language. This probably stems from the fact our native language is English, the main lingua franca, so we sometimes selfishly expect others to learn our language; this means that we disregard theirs. This can also end up leading towards hostility when people are in England while not speaking English but hypocritically do not bother to speak a foreign language when they are abroad.

People should be made aware that there are significant benefits of being able to speak a second language. There are economic reasons, because knowing a foreign language opens up job prospects around the globe and most employees can expect to earn around an extra £2000-£3000 per year compared to their co-workers who are monolingual. Science also suggests that those who learn foreign languages may be less susceptible towards developing conditions like Alzheimer’s.

Are language GCSEs helpful or relevant then? The answer is yes and no. Foreign language GCSEs aim to give students a confident baseline in communicating with people in that language, with students knowing around the most common 1000 words by the end of the course. But do the languages that are offered suffice the needs for our nation in the future? Language GCSEs are considered to be too difficult in their current form and post-Brexit it is vital that Britain’s foreign language skills start to develop. As we leave the EU we will be going into a more global market, where the current standard foreign languages in state schools (German, French and Spanish) will not be the only languages that will suffice. Mandarin Chinese has the most number of native speakers and it is considered the most important language to learn in terms of how well it is for business, with the prospects being even more important in the future as China is only a developing country. Despite this, only 13% of secondary schools in England teach Chinese.

So what can the UK do about the alarming rate of pupils dropping foreign languages? One option is to make language GCSEs easier and more enticing, so pupils don’t feel obliged to choose a subject which they will be bored in and perform poorly. Another option is to be more strict with the standard of teaching foreign languages in primary schools, this means when pupils go into year 7, they will not feel as intimidated by the curriculum; they will be able to broaden their horizons more.

Article first appeared in Grimsby Telegraph 3rd March 2020
By Young Reporter Abiane Forrington