The face of language learning is changing – that’s why we need Asset

August 16th, 2012 by

Today’s A level figures show yet more drop out from language learning post 16, with the traditional subjects French and German taking the biggest hits. Languages entries now account for barely 4% of the total number of A level entries. Teachers in both the independent sector and state schools say that the exam regime, together with competition from STEM subjects, means pupils are less willing to opt for a language.

But looking back over the last 10 years, although German entries have dropped by a massive 40% and French by 28%, other languages have been growing. We’ve been seeing a diversification of the languages landscape post 16. In 2002, 81% of language entries were for French, German and Spanish. This year that proportion has dropped to 71%, and within that, Spanish has grown by a third.

More and more people are coming to languages through non-traditional routes. Rather than by studying a single modern language from the beginning of secondary school or earlier, some are changing languages or perhaps adding new ones later in their career. Others are taking A levels in languages they already have experience of in their homes or communities, or through having lived abroad. We shouldn’t feel threatened by this, we should welcome it, because as an English-speaking country, there is no one language we ought to be learning – we need competence in as many of the world’s languages as we can. And if we have them on our doorsteps, let’s develop them to a high level so they can be used in working life.

But neither the Government nor the exam board OCR seem to appreciate this. OCR has decided to drop its Asset Languages qualifications in 20 of its 25 languages. For some of these languages (Cantonese, Cornish, Hindi, Somali, Swedish, Tamil and Yoruba) for which there is no GCSE or A level, Asset languages was the only qualification available. So there will be no way of assessing competence in these languages, and no encouragement for anyone who speaks those languages or is learning them, to develop and accredit their skills.

But the issue is not just about languages for which no other accreditation exists. Asset provides a way of getting people started on the language learning ladder by accrediting the very first steps in a new language. It also offers learners the choice of being assessed in different skills separately – for example, reading and writing at a higher level than speaking and listening. Teachers of languages like Japanese have stressed how important this is when introducing a new and potentially difficult language. And it not only gives the learners confidence, but it enables teachers to get started and introduce new languages at a level they feel comfortable with. If we want to build our capacity in a more diverse range of languages, this is the way forward. Of course, native speaker teachers are a wonderful resource, but we need to build our home grown expertise too, and this is the way to do it, through small steps.

Apart from the benefits of its flexibility, many teachers have remarked that Asset Languages is a much better exam than GCSE. It is rigorous, adaptable, and many teachers feel it provides a truer reflection than GCSE of how much language has been learnt. The GCSE has been criticised, among other things, for encouraging rote learning.

The face of language learning is changing. We need more and better qualifications in a wide range of languages. That’s why I have signed Speak to the Future’s petition to Save Asset Languages. If you agree, please add your signature, it only takes a few seconds.


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