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Education: Bad language

07 February 2014

The number of pupils studying foreign languages has declined in the past decade. Will this year's Tour de France help change that, asks Dennis Richards


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 follow.

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 help."


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.

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