decline in UK language learning/teaching
Thread poster: Gül Kaya

Gül Kaya  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:08
Turkish to English
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Aug 19, 2013

Decline in uptake of modern languages, which invariably means French and German, at UK universities. I'd love to know what they talk about at these government "crisis meetings" which seem to be held at around this time of year, when the A level results come through.

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/aug/17/language-teaching-crisis-universities-closure

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danielhannan/100231520/the-decline-in-uk-language-learning-is-a-rational-market-response/


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:08
Hebrew to English
Not sure I agree with Daniel Hannan Aug 19, 2013

...but the decline is sad nonetheless.

When Hannan says:
"But look a little bit more closely at the figures. This annual August story about the decline of languages turns out, on closer inspection, to be a decline in the teaching of French and German, both of which have lost half their students over the past decade. Everything else, from Spanish to Mandarin, is holding up.

Children, in other words, are behaving as rational consumers"


I think he's wearing some rose-tinted glasses. The vast majority of schools in England only offer French and/or German (& Spanish if you're lucky). We aren't talking about Harrow here with their range of languages that would bring any linguist to tears. When the vast majority of students shun French and German as they are doing, it doesn't mean they are turning to Japanese, Arabic or Mandarin. Indeed, in most cases they can't, there simply isn't the provision to do so (for the majority).

The fact that the numbers of lesser-taught languages is "holding up" is hardly a victory for language uptake in the UK. It just means that the minority of kids doing these languages (largely the children of immigrants anyhow) are just remaining largely the same - hardly surprising.

It doesn't mean that whole swathes of children are "behaving as rational consumers" and seeing the short-sightedness of only offering the "traditional" French/German. Hannan's view is optimistic to say the least.


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Tatty  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:08
Spanish to English
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Fees Aug 20, 2013

Fees, that's the real reason why students don't read language degrees any more. It doesn't make economic sense, it's a much better idea to undertake a job-orientated course. What's more I've never heard a language degree graduate actually speak the foreign language to a standard that is anywhere near useful, and you can forget about writing it.

However, languages should be studied though at GCSE and A-level, and I would strongly advise that the standard French and German languages be encouraged, since they are without doubt the most useful. It shouldn't be forgotten that within the EU setting, languages are requisite but secondary skills, as you actually have to know how to do something useful too.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:08
Hebrew to English
I think you're right here Aug 20, 2013

Tatty wrote:
I've never heard a language degree graduate actually speak the foreign language to a standard that is anywhere near useful, and you can forget about writing it.


I rarely heard language students at university actually conversing in their respective languages outside the classroom...and it wasn't down to a lack of opportunity either, not when your average uni campus is swamped with foreign students to practice on.


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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 21:08
Member (2007)
English
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Aren't the A-levels themselves the problem? Aug 20, 2013

I may have some very out-of-date facts to hand, as I left the UK in 1993, so feel free to jump on me, but my daughter had to battle and battle to be allowed to do French at A-level. She had her eye on a particular degree course - Mechanical Engineering with French - but she was supposed to take all science subjects or all arts. Pupils were actively prevented from taking a mixture. We brought every argument possible to bear (and a few threats), and finally the headmistress gave her special dispensation, based only on the fact that she had obtained an A grade in GCSE French; we were Francophiles who hoped one day to live in France; and that she had a specific goal that required physics plus mathematics plus French at A-level. We were left in no doubt during her studies that we'd messed up their timetabling and were a nuisance family, but they probably forgave her when the school got the kudos of her coming 2nd in her entire year (and one of only two female students who stayed the course).

So, have they made changes to the A-levels since we left that would avoid such problems? Or are pupils still spending years learning just 2-4 subjects and ignoring/being forced to drop everything else? My son had to continue a little of everything for his Baccalaureate in France - history, geography, even English - even though he was studying for a science bac. I'm sure that made for a better education.

BTW: even though he wouldn't have called himself a totally fluent French speaker, my husband had to resort to speaking French with an English university lecturer in France. And the one I worked with for a short while insisted we always spoke in French, even in front of the students. So, is it any wonder students leave college with a lot of a foreign language still to learn?


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Charlotte Farrell  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:08
Member (2013)
German to English
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Clearly you have never met Heriot Watt students Aug 20, 2013

Ty Kendall wrote:

Tatty wrote:
I've never heard a language degree graduate actually speak the foreign language to a standard that is anywhere near useful, and you can forget about writing it.


I rarely heard language students at university actually conversing in their respective languages outside the classroom...and it wasn't down to a lack of opportunity either, not when your average uni campus is swamped with foreign students to practice on.


At my university, a lot of us made efforts to speak foreign languages outside of the classroom and amongst ourselves.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:08
Hebrew to English
I don't doubt that some do Aug 20, 2013

Charlotte Farrell wrote:

Ty Kendall wrote:

Tatty wrote:
I've never heard a language degree graduate actually speak the foreign language to a standard that is anywhere near useful, and you can forget about writing it.


I rarely heard language students at university actually conversing in their respective languages outside the classroom...and it wasn't down to a lack of opportunity either, not when your average uni campus is swamped with foreign students to practice on.


At my university, a lot of us made efforts to speak foreign languages outside of the classroom and amongst ourselves.


Just that I was always surprised by their "shyness" (shall we say) in speaking them. I don't think it's a university issue. (I was actually thinking more of a girl in particular I knew @ Leeds University studying Italian who refused to speak a word of it outside the classroom, but it was something I noticed with a lot of language students from more than one university).

[Edited at 2013-08-20 11:35 GMT]


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Gül Kaya  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:08
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TOPIC STARTER
Languages seen as difficult Aug 20, 2013

@ Shelia. When I did my A levels (English, French and German), it was also very much a sorting hat mentality of the sciences to the one side and the humanities (of which languages was a sub-category) to the other. Never the twain did meet, unless it was Biology added to the humanities mix, for some reason that was allowed.

I think the decline in the uptake of languages at A level began with the advent of school league tables and the like. Languages were seen as "difficult" subjects, as in hard to learn and master, success and results were not easily quantifiable and I suppose students were tacitly encouraged to think of them as not necessarily, in and of themselves, helping them get jobs. Add to this the hike in tuition fees, high undergraduate unemployment rates and "austerity" Britain, and lo and behold we have the situation we have today. A knock-on effect which saw university departments close. I don't think you needed to be Nostradamus to see that this would happen.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:08
Hebrew to English
Agree 100% Aug 20, 2013

Gül Kaya wrote:

@ Shelia. When I did my A levels (English, French and German), it was also very much a sorting hat mentality of the sciences to the one side and the humanities (of which languages was a sub-category) to the other. Never the twain did meet, unless it was Biology added to the humanities mix, for some reason that was allowed.

I think the decline in the uptake of languages at A level began with the advent of school league tables and the like. Languages were seen as "difficult" subjects, as in hard to learn and master, success and results were not easily quantifiable and I suppose students were tacitly encouraged to think of them as not necessarily, in and of themselves, helping them get jobs. Add to this the hike in tuition fees, high undergraduate unemployment rates and "austerity" Britain, and lo and behold we have the situation we have today. A knock-on effect which saw university departments close. I don't think you needed to be Nostradamus to see that this would happen.


Not to mention the gulf between a language GCSE and A-Level. It's immense and daunting and would put anyone off studying languages.

GCSE level is all about basic survival, formulaic phrases and a smidgen of grammar (I hate to specifically REQUEST to be taught the German cases at school - my German teacher, duly impressed by my enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge, taught them to me on my own in the morning in her own time before classes)...GCSE level also has very defined vocabulary and grammar that you are expected to know.

Then you have the standard six week-ish school break...and then....

A-Level! Where you are expected to read entire novels barely aided and have no limits to your vocabulary and grammar knowledge.

The transition (as I remembered it) was uncomfortable and jarring. And it did dampen my enthusiasm for languages for a while too.

So, even if we could get kids to take languages, we need to look at the way we teach them (bring GCSE up a notch so the twain shall meet).


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Tatty  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:08
Spanish to English
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Teaching standards Aug 20, 2013

The point I wanted to make really was about standards in language teaching at universities.

A couple of years ago I did a masters in interpreting and I had the opportunity to meet language graduates from UK universities who had attained 2:1s. They didn't know the first thing about Spanish. What's more, the same low-level knowledge could easily have been attained through self-study on the Internet or by attending language classes on the side, and at a fraction of the cost. That is all they had to show for themselves after a 4-year degree. Clearly, university teaching was the culprit. The reason why these language departments are closing is because they were simply too rubbish to survive. A true swindle, I would say. And those uni lecturers only have themselves to blame...

As to the gulf between GCSE and A-level standards, it certainly did exist in the past. But nowadays, we have the Internet and Satellite dishes and as a result, we can get French TV, for instance, beamed into our own homes. Even so, I would still lay the blame squarely on teachers.


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Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 22:08
English to Polish
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Perhaps a knee-jerk comment, but... Aug 20, 2013

Is it possible that the worldwide shift from correctness to 'communication' and thus basically from mastery to passable usage in the teaching of languages both local and foreign has had some adverse consequences here?

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