Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) are subjects of critical importance to schools in the independent sector. These are subjects in which our students achieve very good outcomes, and which are highly valued by families and learners. Students from our schools contribute significantly to the numbers of pupils studying languages at GCSE and A-level across England and Wales.
Modern Languages are the subjects in which students learn to communicate across borders, not just by learning new words and grammar, but also through the visceral experience of contact with new cultures, ways of life, ways of seeing and ways of thinking. Languages thus offer not just practical life-skills but also tremendous value in terms of social cognition and preparation for life in the modern, multilingual world. This is why languages matter.
We can all welcome the political intent to put languages on a strong footing and to help teachers and learners understand what is expected of them in key public examinations. But ISMLA member schools are deeply concerned by new proposals for languages exams published by the Department for Education, for a number of reasons.
The Government proposes that students’ learning at GCSE be based on 1700 words for Higher Tier or 1200 words for Foundation Tier, and that 90 per cent of all of these words should be so-called “high frequency” words – that is, ranked among the 2000 most common words. This may well sound sensible. But there are two serious problems.
“There’s a myth, in languages, that ‘less is more’: Less is not more, it is less.”
Firstly, 1200 words for a “good pass” at grade 5 is a very small number indeed. Independent communication is widely accepted to begin to be possible at 2000 words, therefore the proposed curriculum falls significantly short of its own goal of enabling young people to communicate proficiently “for a range of audiences and purposes, in different genres and […] contexts”. These 1200 words place British learners far, far behind their continental counterparts, even those learning languages other than English. German students of French in non-selective Realschulen aim for 2100 words over four years, for example.
The second problem is that a lexicon skewed so heavily to so-called high frequency words is not a lexicon with which we can actually communicate. In reality, we use language to communicate about things. And the things about which we’re communicating – from the weather, to food, to our work, to our environment or our imagination – are not high frequency words. “Bahnhof”, “gare”, “Käse” and “fromage” are, remarkably, not high frequency words in French and German.
“A lexicon skewed so heavily to so-called high frequency words is not a lexicon with which we can actually communicate.”
The consequence of this is that the lexical content proposed represents a significant reduction in learning and will lead to a decline in standards. There’s a myth, in languages, that “less is more”: Less is not more, it is less. If we learn fewer words, we will know fewer words, and if we know fewer words, we are less proficient. This is likely to deepen the motivational confusion experienced by students today. The approach being proposed has not been fully or independently evaluated, and there is, to our knowledge, no successful language course in the world quite like it.
Equally problematic is the way in which the proposals relegate cultural learning to the ungraded, unrewarded periphery of the subject. Yet as linguists we know that language and culture are inalienable from one another. In the 21st century, cultural learning is more valuable and motivating than ever before, particularly for anglophone learners. Removing cultural learning from modern languages turns languages into a sort of structural puzzle uncluttered by meaning and cultural significance – not the rich, vital and creative medium for the freer movement of people and ideas that we as teachers know them to be.
“Removing cultural learning from modern languages turns them into a sort of structural puzzle uncluttered by meaning and cultural significance.”
Our final concern relates to the other languages which are learned in our schools and which bring vibrancy to our learning communities. These proposals have been designed for French, German and Spanish. But what of Russian, Mandarin, Arabic, Polish and Urdu? We should be uneasy about the creation of a two-tier system for the learning of modern languages, with divergent standards and contradictory aims and objectives.
As linguists, our inclination is to look beyond our borders and to be international in our outlook. This is what we need to do to improve standards and take-up at GCSE: look at relevant practice overseas regarding the teaching of languages other than English, and consider how to design qualifications which are valued beyond our borders. We can all be optimistic that the Government will carefully consider how to broaden the academic and professional input into its proposals, and draw upon successful curriculum models elsewhere for inspiration.