Sprechen Sie what?
I now feel it was a bit unfair to have a joke at the expense of Esperanto in my last post. After all, the GSCE figures just issued suggest that it might not be long before there are more people in this country capable of speaking Esperanto than German.
Most newspaper accounts of GSCE that you’ve read will have parroted the up-beat press release of the Joint Council of Qualifications: more students are getting A grades, more are taking science subjects, the gender gap is narrowing, standards are going up. Oh yes -- and there have been fewer entries in most modern languages: a 10 per cent decline in German (yet again), almost as much in French.
Currently abut 80,000 kids take German at GCSE – only about 8 times as many as take Latin. Keen classicist that I am, even I can’t believe that ratio is quite right. To look at it another way – and I get this from a House of Commons question -- the number of students in Shropshire taking any modern language at all at GCSE fell from 2549 in 2001 to 1821 in 2006. Any rise there has been in languages in the country overall, has come from Polish and Urdu, from native speakers in other words. I haven’t noticed a load of school kids starting Polish as a second language.
The hand-wringing about this has been a bit perfunctory. The Schools Minister, for example, claimed that making languages compulsory in primary school would eventually make a difference – while (consistent in its way, I guess) he also put the decline down to making languages optional in the National Curriculum after age 14
The insouciance was gobsmacking.
Here we are in a European/global world and only half our young people have any foreign language qualification at all at age 16. I suppose that we assume that they will mostly get by in English, and maybe they can. But only if we have a narrow view of what the linguistic constituency is. There are more people in the world than live in Anglo-America and its satellites.
So what do we do?
The first problem is that we haven’t begun to see the bite of the linguistic decline. The overall GCSE figures were bad enough, but if you look at the raw figures behind the press release (also on the JCQ website) it’s even worse. This is a treasure trove of information which reveals all kinds of curious patterns. It tells you, for example, that roughly twice the percentage of kids (male and female) get A* in English Literature in Northern Ireland than in England. In fact, Northern Irish boys out-perform English girls. How do you explain that? (It’s not just the effect of big multi-cultural conurbations, because the Welsh results are much closer to the English.)
If you turn to the modern language figures, there are nastier surprises. It may be that out of all GCSE entries in the UK only 3.7% are in French and 1.4% in German. Go to Wales and even those meagre figures are undercut: it’s 2.6% and 0.7% respectively. (Scotland predictably does a bit better and maybe has something to teach us: the Scottish ‘standard level’ French has about 8% of the total entries.)
The second problem is what any political party, or policy group, thinks can be done about this kind of problem. The recent Dearing Report on languages talked sensibly enough about convincing employers that languages matter (but was a bit unclear about how you might do that) and trailed the idea of “revitalising the learning experience”. Otherwise the main solutions on offer seem to be either bribery (so the CBI suggests giving students a £1000 per year to study Science at university) or making ‘difficult’ subjects as easy as ‘easy’ ones – which comes perilously close to rewarding kids for learning a language badly.
Lets leave aside the question of whether we want our own bodily samples to be analysed by a pathologist who took up the profession for the sake of the extra £1000. The only way to ensure long term that students want to take up a subject – whether Physics or French -- is to make it interesting and rewarding, and worth doing, beyond the multiple choice tick-box of the new GCSE (perhaps that’s what Dearing meant). And that means investing in inspiring teachers, and paying them the rate for that job.
Which, of course, costs a lot more than the one-off bribe to the kids.