What the latest EU language surveys tell us about the UK (part 1)

June 21st, 2012 by

The European Commission has published two new surveys on language learning, one on the achievement of 14-15 year old pupils across 14 countries and the other on language skills and attitudes in the adult population.

The European Survey on Language Competence tested pupils across Europe on the level of competence reached in the first and second foreign languages taught in their education systems. On the level of competence reached in the first foreign language, England came bottom of the table, with only 9% of pupils tested reaching level B1 or above on the Common European Framework. These pupils were tested on their French – pupils in almost all the other countries taking part were tested on their English. On average, 42% reached B1 level. Some people may see this comparison as unfair in that the demand and motivation to learn English in other countries far outstrips the enthusiasm to learn French here. Clearly we can’t compare ourselves with countries like Sweden or Malta which topped the table, where English functions more or less as a second language. It is interesting though, that France comes second to bottom – another country where, perhaps, an over-inflated sense of importance given to the national language gets in the way of overcoming monolingual status?

On the test of the second foreign language, England did a little better, with 6% reaching level B1 compared to the EU average of 25%. Sweden, top of the table for English as its first language, drops to the bottom when pupils are tested on its second foreign language – Spanish. Another example perhaps of how English dominates the language learning scene and sucks away motivation to learn other languages. The range of languages taught as second languages is much wider. France, like Sweden, plumps for Spanish. Spain, Portugal and Greece teach French as their second foreign language, and almost everywhere else including England, it is German. Given the predominance of English, should we perhaps take English out of the equation and compare England to other countries only on how well pupils are doing in other languages? Certainly this would narrow the gap a little, but it still leaves us trailing most other countries. So what is going wrong?

Some will no doubt question the methodology, and want to argue that perhaps the types of tests set were more in tune with assessment methods used in other countries than our own. The Common European Framework is supposed to provide an internationally-valid description of levels, but the methods by which such levels are assigned may still be flawed, or favour one type of education system over another. I don’t really buy into this argument – if this were so why would Sweden be top of the table on first language, but bottom on second? Why would England and France, with radically differing approaches to education and assessment, both appear at the bottom of the table on first language competence?

Others may, unfortunately blame teachers and teaching methods in England. Although of course there is some poor teaching in languages as with other subjects, I’d be very wary indeed of drawing this conclusion. Evidence from the Language Trends survey shows it is much more likely to be related to the low status of foreign languages within the secondary curriculum, and with the stranglehold of GCSE exams which many language teachers feel are a barrier to real learning. Top of teachers’ concerns in Language Trends was the time available for language teaching – and this is backed up by a recent OECD survey which showed that England sets aside the least amount of time for language teaching at ages 12-14 than any other country. Teachers who responded to Language Trends felt that this, combined with the constraints of the GCSE syllabus, was preventing them focussing on the more rewarding and inspiring aspects of language learning that were the key to pupils making real progress.

Today we have heard that Secretary of State Michael Gove intends to scrap GCSEs and replace them with a different type of exam. This might provide an opportunity to look at some deep-seated problems in language learning, but it’s vital that it should open up, rather than close down opportunities to teach languages in motivating, creative ways, with lots of cultural contact and opportunities to use the language. Judging from the response to the news so far, it doesn’t seem that teachers think that this will be the case.

We also need to think about participation in language learning. The European survey published today measures quality rather than quantity. Languages are compulsory up to at least 16 in all the other countries which took part. Therefore, while in other countries the proportions of pupils quoted as reaching the different levels can be regarded as representative of the cohort as a whole, in England, the 9% of pupils reaching B1 cannot be taken to stand for 9% of all pupils, but 9% of those who are studying a language at that age – more like just 4% of the whole cohort. The reform of GCSE and the review of the secondary curriculum therefore need to take into account not just how to raise standards for the minority who study a language, but how to boost participation and achievement overall.

Part 2 on the latest Eurobarometer survey to follow.

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