ONE of London University's leading colleges, UCL, has stipulated
that applicants for all their courses must now have a GCSE
qualification in a modern language. We must wait to see if others
The British Academy has expressed serious concerns about British
students' future prospects for employment in Europe. Attending a
careers fair at a school in Basildon, Miriam Clegg made clear her
disdain for public-school monoglots, including those from her
husband's Alma Mater, Westminster. "I know far too many students
who come out of there without speaking a single foreign language."
Our notorious reluctance to engage in serious foreign-language
learning has reached crisis point.
"Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the
Hotel Magnifique in Cannes, there had crept that shifty hangdog
look which announces that an English man is about to speak French."
Three-quarters of a century on from P. G. Wodehouse, things can
hardly be said to have improved. The 2013 A-level results revealed
the parlous state of modern foreign languages (MFL) in schools.
A-level entries in French and German plunged by 50 per cent between
1996 and 2012. The decline accelerated further in 2013.
In German, only 1701 boys did the exam (as opposed to 13,000 in
media studies). And of the 1701, only 0.4 per cent got an A*. By my
calculations, that means that seven boys in the entire country
achieved the top grade in German. You can lay a bet on the fact
that at least some of them were called Helmut, Hans, or Heinrich.
Things were not much better in French, where 35 boys reached the
summit. It does not seem much to show for the massive investment
that schools are making into MFL.
Mike Kelly, Professor of French at Southampton University and
head of the government-funded programme Routes into Languages, sees
sinister influences at work. He cited the rise of UKIP as both a
cause and a symptom of growing contempt for foreign cultures.
"There is an increased parochialism. General xenophobia doesn't
A GLOBAL dimension to the curriculum of a church school is a
sine qua non, and 2014 is a particularly good year to
remind ourselves of the huge significance of our nearest
neighbours. In France, anniversary events to mark the 100th
anniversary of the start of the Great War will be happening
alongside similar ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of
D-Day, on 6 June. There are funded places for two students from
every secondary school to visit the Flanders battlefields.
There are obvious reasons why we continue to find languages such
a problem area. English is the dominant language in the worlds of
business, sport, and fashion, and European countries are fighting
the opposite battle to us. Why, then, bother learning another
language when the rest of the world wants to speak English?
Furthermore, there is widespread despair in the teaching
profession that the GCSE modern-languages examination has become
little more than a rote-learning exercise. The decision to make
languages optional from 2014 onwards has also, undoubtedly,
contributed to a further drop in status.
HOPE is at hand, however. For once, the north of England is
leading the way in a languages revival. There have been some
special sporting achievements in recent years: Sir Bradley
Wiggins's victory in the Tour de France, the world's greatest
cycling race, was among the best. He deserves his knighthood for
being prepared to do his press conferences in French.
This year, the Grand Départ will start in Leeds. The first stage
will finish in Harrogate; and stage two, starting in York, will
finish in Sheffield.
Schools are running French classes in the evenings, and making
plans to turn their school fields into temporary campsites. We are
learning about vélos, pelotons, maillots jaunes, flammes
rouges, and cols. This is our time.
The Tour is known for its mountainous climbs and rolling French
countryside. Two new climbs will now be added to the iconic list.
French commentators will have to grapple with the Col de Buttertubs
and the Côte de Blubberhouses. Vive l'entente cordiale.
Dennis Richards was head teacher of St Aidan's C of E High
School in Harrogate for 23 years. He is now a languages teaching
assistant in St John Fisher RC High School in Harrogate.