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The climate for language learning and ‘scratchy labels’

March 21st, 2013 by

Headline press coverage of the 2012 Language Trends report, of which I am the main author, has focussed on ‘Anti-European attitudes’ as creating an unhelpful climate for language learning. This is a valid issue to debate – which I will discuss below – but it was certainly not a finding of the survey, which was concerned with provision in primary schools in the lead up to languages becoming compulsory in KS2 and the situation in secondaries in the context of the EBacc and proposed reforms to exams.

The key points for me were that language learning is a reality in 97% of the 700+ primary schools who responded, but that there is a huge spectrum of practice and little consistency, leading to poor transition to KS3. As one (secondary) respondent put it, ‘they do not get a sense of a language learning journey and that is a real problem’. In KS4, the findings show that the EBacc is having only a limited impact on the top-performing pupils and that a new gap is opening up between these and less academic pupils who are often actively discouraged from taking a language beyond KS3.

Over 1000 primary and secondary teachers contributed information and opinions to the survey and the findings are detailed and important. CfBT is to be hugely congratulated for commissioning it and I am looking forward to presenting findings to teachers at Language World.

It is unfortunate that the press were not as interested in the growth of language teaching in primary schools as in the decline in French and German in secondary. Teachers in (some) secondary schools where parents are not particularly supportive pointed to the unfavourable climate for language learning and ‘national prejudices’ against language learning. This struck a chord with me – I have previously blogged about linguistic intolerance. And today we have seen a clear example of linguistic intolerance being linked to anti-European sentiment – a Daily Mail crusade against ‘scratchy labels’ in clothes (because they are translated into too many languages).

So although the report did not find evidence of ‘anti-European attitudes’ impacting on motivation to learn languages, this is where it came from. I would be interested to hear from teachers whether they think this is the case in their school.

Another misconception being reported – and one on which I certainly want to put the record straight – is that the rise of Spanish is unjustified because French and German are the languages most needed by UK nationals in the workplace. This is only half true, for as the State of the Nation report for the British Academy shows, while French and German are the languages most frequently needed in employment, Spanish and a wide range of other languages are also needed. The point being that the growth of Spanish and other languages should not be at the expense of French and German – we need more language skills overall – and a wider range of people studying them.

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