Tag Archives: foreign languages UK

Foreign Language Uptick in UK

Richard Garner in The Independent, August 22, 2013:

A major increase in the take-up of modern foreign languages – the first for more than a decade – is being heralded as the brightest spot on the horizon in this year’s GCSE results.

Figures showed French, Spanish and German had all registered an increase – French up 15.5 per cent to 177,000, Spanish up 25.8 per cent to 91,000 and German up 9.4 per cent to 63,000.

The take-up of minority languages also rose by 5.1 per cent with the most popular being Italian with 5,136, urdu with 4,519 and Polish 3,933. Others increasing in popularity include Arabic (3,607) and Chinese (3,042).

The increase – after languages have been in virtual free-fall since Labour decided they should no longer be compulsory for 14 to 16-year-olds a decade ago – is being put down to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s introduction of the English Baccalaureate ranking in exam leagues.

Whilst English, maths, science and the humanities – history or geography – had survived better in the face of the move away from traditional academic subjects in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, scores of language teachers were sacked from secondary schools as the take-up of the subject plummeted.

“This year’s upturn in languages will be welcomed across the education sector and beyond,” said Michael Turner, director at the Joint Council for Qualifications – the umbrella body representing exam boards. “Not since 2008 have there been this many entries.

“However, it remains to be seen if this is the start of a trend and if students continue to study a language at A-level.”

Last week’s A-level results revealed a depressingly familiar picture of a further decline in take-up – with a 9.9per cent fall in the take up of French and 11.1 per cent drop in German only minimally offset by a 4.1 per cent rise in Spanish.

The rise in numbers studying the subject led to a drop in the percentage of pupils gaining A* to C grades in the subject – with French down from 66.2 per cent to 63.9 per cent, German from 43.3 per cent to 42.1 per cent and Spanish from 66.8 per cent to 66.2 per cent. However, exam boards explained this by saying that the rise had attracted a broader range of candidates to study the exam.

Katja Hall, chief policy director at the CBI, said: “It’s good to see the big rise in language entrants but the accelerating drop-off at A-level shows there is a huge amount of ground to claw back since compulsory GCSEs were scrapped.

“It is better late than never to make languages mandatory at primary school (the will be compulsory for seven-year-olds) but it will be years before we can reap the rewards fully.”

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss said: “Today’s results show the EBacc has not just arrested the decline in the study of academic subjects at GCSE – it is reversing it.

“I am particularly delighted to see a languages revival – with an increase in the number of entries to French, German and Spanish GCSEs after years of decline.”

Kathryn James, director of policy at the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “The slight fall in top grades was to be anticipated given the wider ability range now taking these subjects.”


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English Teens Among ‘Worst in Europe’ at Languages

This is not a title anyone should be proud of! Why do students in English-speaking countries seem to have such trouble learning a foreign language? Article was written by Andrew Marszal for The Telegraph (www.telegraph.co.uk), February 17, 2013:

Teenagers in 14 different European countries were tested on their ability to speak the first foreign language taught in schools, which for England was French.

In reading, writing and listening tests, English pupils were ranked bottom.

The study suggests youngsters are lagging far behind their European peers, with many unable to understand more than basic words or phrases.

Just 11 per cent of English pupils studying French were considered “independent users” in writing – the lowest in Europe for a first foreign language. In comparison, across all countries, two-fifths of students were at this level.

Only 9.2 per cent were ranked in the top category for French reading – again, the lowest in Europe for a first foreign language.

The highest performers overall, based on reading, listening and writing skills, were Sweden, Malta and the Netherlands, the research found.
But France, where students’ English skills were tested, also performed badly, perfoming second-worst in all three disciplines.
The study, conducted as part of the European Survey on Language Competences (ESLC) was released on the same day a new report from the British Academy found that the UK’s poor foreign language skills were hurting the economy.
The British Academy report said a “vicious circle of monolingualism” was taking place, as the dearth of necessary skills forced British employers to “sidestep language issues”, removing incentives for new language students.
“It is clear that the UK still has a long way to go in order to catch up with our European neighbours and international competitors,” said Professor Nigel Vincent, Vice-President of the British Academy. “Languages are vital for the health and wellbeing of the education and research base, for UK competitiveness, and for individuals and society at large.”
It also found that the current focus on French, Spanish and German was too narrow to meet modern global business needs.
“Indications of future demand show that a growing number of languages will be needed as the UK expands its global connections and responds to new economic realities,” it says. “These include not only world languages such as Mandarin, Arabic and Russian – but also Turkish, Farsi and Polish.”
The ESLC study, conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Researc, tested around 1,444 pupils in 53 schools in England.
Around nine in 10 pupils in England were considered “basic users” in their French reading, meaning at best, they could only understand short simple texts.
Some were only able to understand short passages a single phrase at a time, and others were not even at this level.

In listening, 93% of English pupils studying French were “basic users” – this means that they could understand simple phrases and expressions relating to areas such as personal information, shopping and geography.
Responding to the report, a Department for Education spokesman said: “We are addressing the chronic lack of attention paid to foreign languages in schools.

“It is vital young people start studying a language at an earlier age. That is why from next year we are ensuring that children learn a language from age seven.

“They can then build on that at secondary school – where the EBacc is reversing the decline in the number of pupils studying languages.”

Last year the Government announced that for the first time all primary school children will have to learn a foreign language from age seven. Currently about one in ten state primary schools offers no language lessons at all and a further 20 per cent only offer it to some year groups, according to the most recent official figures.

The move to make languages a requirement from age seven will take effect next year.

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A Letter in Support of Foreign Languages

A retired Professor of French wrote the following letter (published in The Guardian, February 13, 2011) in support of reinstating a language requirement for university entrance in the UK. He was responding to an article (see below) by Andrew Hussey, published on February 6 in The Guardian.

Andrew Hussey’s piece “French is too important to be left to middle-class Francophiles” (Comment) articulates very clearly the problems being faced by UK university French departments. He could have made similar claims regarding the teaching of the other “big languages” of Europe, notably German, but an essential point, which he does not make, is that the language choices a community makes are, ultimately, political choices. They are not ideologically neutral. Opting out of European languages implies that, as a group, we do not wish to relate meaningfully to the speakers of these languages and that we do not believe that they have anything to teach us.

While our European neighbours are led to broaden their world views through learning English, we choose to narrow our horizons, in the belief that sourcing all our ideas in a single place will lead to intellectual creativity, economic regeneration and cultural autonomy. The UK universities could transform the situation by reinserting into their minimum entrance requirements the language qualification they abandoned a generation ago. They are alone in Europe in not making such a requirement.

Anthony Lodge, emeritus professor of French language and linguistics,

University of St Andrews


Here is Hussey’s article, “French is too important to be left to middle-class Francophiles”:

Within a few years, the study of French at UK universities, already severely endangered, may well become extinct. The reasons for this are various and complex, including the idea that anyone interesting speaks English anyway. But the fact is that university applications are in an apparently unstoppable downward spiral and French departments are under threat. What is worse is that this depressing situation – depressing at least for those who teach French in universities – has been met by the government and the public with a resounding: “So what?”

To some extent, this is understandable. In a grim economic climate, why should anyone really care about the plight of a discipline which is usually perceived to be posh, elitist and pointless? The cause is not helped by the generally perceived notion that French literature these days, a bit like French cinema, is mainly pretentious tosh – incomprehensible when it is not simply boring. Indeed, the prevailing consensus seems to be a not-too-faint echo of the classic Britpop statement from Jarvis Cocker (who is himself a long-time Paris resident): “You can take your Year in Provence and shove it up your arse!”

Actually, Jarvis is making a serious point and I agree with him. In essence, my view is that the study of French in the UK is far too important to be left to a middle-class, Francophile elite. I say this as someone who has been working as an academic in French studies for more than 20 years and always hated the fantasy version of France and, in particular, the image of snooty tourists sipping pastis in the Dordogne.

My experience of France couldn’t be more different. I come from a working-class background in Liverpool and I first went to Paris in the 1980s to buy records, mainly rai music, Afrobeat, rare stuff you couldn’t get at home. I fell in love immediately with the area of Barbès, the tough immigrant district in the north-east of the city. I also fell in love with writers such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Emile Zola, who documented the rough edges of Paris.

This first visit was also the starting point of a fascination with the North African culture of Paris. I went back to England, did a first degree, a PhD and eventually became a professor of French. Why is that important? Well, because, at least in the classical sense, I’m not a Francophile at all (in some ways quite the opposite – for one thing, the longer I live in Paris the more I find that Parisians really do live up to their reputation as the most irritating people in the world).

The really interesting part of my job is to interpret the French-speaking world, which is partly in Paris in microcosm, but also much bigger than France. It is this work that, in recent years, has taken me from Bucharest to Algiers to Montreal.

What studying French has really done for me is to provide me with a new mental landscape. French writing, from Voltaire to Sartre to Houellebecq, has a hard, confrontational edge to it, driven by big ideas, which does not exist in the same way in the English-speaking world. This is why French literature has appealed to English writers of a certain “outsider” stripe, from George Orwell to Will Self. This is a political phenomenon as much as anything else. For a working-class intellectual (which was how I rather cockily fancied myself as a student) to speak and understand French is to short-circuit many of the stupidities of class prejudice in the UK.

In the 21st century, it is equally significant that in London, Berlin or Rome, French-speaking members of the Middle Eastern or African diasporas are, as I write, forging a new relation with Europe and “European-ness” through the French language they have made their own. Interestingly, this is all happening outside official French culture.

One of the present generation of UK academics who is leading the charge against “Francophilia” in French studies is Charles Forsdick, who is the current James Barrow professor of French at Liverpool University. In a recent article on the doomed future of French studies, Forsdick acidly remarked that in the past French departments had usually been staffed by French nationals and that their “persistent Francophilia often tended to obstruct the distance of ethnographic objectivity on which modern languages should ideally be based”.

In other words, we cannot rely on the French or their admirers to tell us what French culture is. More to the point, the role of UK French studies is  not to promote France or Frenchness, but to help us understand how (or if) the French-speaking world works.



That said, it still needs to be made fit for purpose in the 21st century. Part of that job is to think of French as a world language and not the preserve of braying Brit holidaymakers. Writing in French, from Morocco to Senegal to Quebec, has much to teach us in Britain about the hyper-complexity of the postcolonial world; for this reason, it should be read by all classes, all races, and not just those who are lucky enough to go to an expensive school.

For the past five years, I’ve been based in Paris as dean of the University of London in Paris (ULIP). Here, we teach students from all backgrounds a degree in French. What is most exciting about this project is the way in which these students discover a new world – politics, art, history, philosophy – via Paris. And that, too, is what French studies in the UK is all about. That is why academics in the French studies community should be self-confident and even combative about their future.

To let French studies go the way of classics – a museum piece for specialists – would not only be an act of cultural vandalism, but also a direct attack on the premise of social mobility in Britain. All young people in the UK have the right to access the world beyond the Anglosphere. For all the reasons stated above, French is one of the best ways into that zone. And that is more than enough reason why – and this is where I really am speaking the same language as Jarvis – we can’t let French studies be hijacked or abolished by those who like France too much.


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